Word count for this review: 695
Multi-instrumentalist Arturo Sandoval is Cuba’s most famous jazz émigré. Born in a small village in Havana Province in 1949, he took up the trumpet as a child and earned a place in Cuba’s all-star national band by the age of 16. His first major ensemble was the seminal Latin jazz group Irakere, which he co-founded with Chucho Valdes and Paquito D’Rivera. Sandoval is also well-known for his lifelong association with bebop legend Dizzy Gillespie, whom he considered his main musical idol and mentor. While on stage at this Halifax performance, he also named two major Canadian influences on his music: trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and pianist Oscar Peterson. By the end of the night, those influences were made clear through Sandoval’s astounding performance.
Sandoval performed with a 5-piece backup band comprised of a pianist, a bassist, a percussionist, a drummer, and a saxophonist who also played the EWI, a breath-controlled synthesizer in the shape of a soprano sax. Aside from Sandoval himself, the strongest musicians in the group were surely the bassist and the pianist, who were constantly in lock-step and who created a more solid foundation than even the traditional bass and drums. The pianist was totally fluent in the language of Latin music, turning in flawless montunos on the piano and also adding sublime colours and textures with his unique vintage synth patches from the 70s and 80s. The bassist called to mind at times the funky finger-picking style of Tower of Power bassist Francis Rocco Prestia, and at other times the virtuosic soloing style of John Patitucci. Like Patitucci, he was equally at home playing the 6-string electric bass or the traditional acoustic upright bass.
Arturo Sandoval has a captivating presence on stage. He’s extremely charismatic, self-deprecating, and funny. In numerous interviews he has stated that his chief objective is to entertain, and yet he didn’t at all pander to the lowest common denominator in the audience. He’s a very serious player with truly astounding technique on trumpet, percussion, piano, and vocals. Indeed, he’s so proficient at all of these instruments that one wonders if he has a second brain stored somewhere. It’s remarkable to hear a single musician perform with such prowess on so many instruments in a single set, let alone a single song.
His range on the trumpet is astonishing. Like Dizzy, he can play far into the stratosphere, squeezing out notes that are nearly audible only by dogs; he could even do this with the restrictive Harmon mute placed in the bell of his trumpet. However, he can also play lower than any trumpeter I’ve ever heard: during one of his solos, he transcended the ordinary limitations of the instrument by progressing well into the range of a bass trombone.
During another selection, he treated the audience to a scat solo on vocals which included a perfect and hilarious imitation of an acoustic bass, both plucked and with a bow. That same scat solo included the fastest triple- and quadruple-tongueing I’ve ever heard — it sounded like his tongue was simply fluttering between his teeth.
He turned serious after that tune by sitting down at the piano and playing a standard swinger with a simple quartet and no percussion. This was perhaps the most awe-inspiring selection of the evening: if you didn’t know that Sandoval was a trumpet player originally, you could easily mistake the piano for his main instrument. His total command over the keyboard was that profound.
Not being a big fan of Latin jazz personally, I have to admit that I was apprehensive about what kind of show I was about to see. I worried that we would be subjected to a blistering array of fast and high trumpet playing that would be full of chops but bereft of nuance; a show that would entertain the masses but leave the discerning jazz listener cold. I’m pleased to report that he dashed most of those worries within the first chorus of the first tune, however. He now occupies a much more exalted status in my own repertoire of jazz musicians than he did before I heard him play live. It was an absolute pleasure to attend this show.