Volume III, Issue IV Winter 2004

Latin jazz lover
Arturo Sandoval out to educate Americans about their nation's own music

Arturo Sandoval is one intense dude. In his music, his words and his life, the ferociously gifted trumpet master is a living personification the ardent, hot-blooded Latin artist. His best work is hallmarked by blazing chops and ideas so brimming with raw passion, it seems Sandoval can barely contain his own emotions. When he's turned on and fully engaged, Sandoval's playing can be nothing short of breath-taking, feral, seemingly super-human.

Arturo Sandoval Natural gifts aside, the root of Sandoval's intensity comes from his upbringing in Fidel Castro's Cuba. A free spirit long restrained under a dictatorship, Sandoval was frustrated and stifled, both personally and musically, in an environment that limited his ability to create and perform how and when he pleased.

Mentored by the legendary trumpeter/be-bop engineer Dizzy Gillespie – whose furious, upper-register blowing Sandoval absorbed to wonderful effect – he finally defected to America with Gillespie's aid in 1990. His liberation has been bittersweet, though, as Sandoval's soul still weeps for compatriots less fortunate than he.

"I suffer in my homeland under dictatorship, and they still suffer – for 46 years now," Sandoval says, Cuban inflection well-evident. "I still have a lot of relatives there. It's a beautiful country with the wrong government. The people deserve something better than they have now. They're starving, and worse than that, they're hopeless."

Sandoval's struggles and triumphs were documented in the 2000 HBO film, "For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story," starring Andy Garcia. This was quite a rare honor for a living jazz musician.

"It's difficult to put 55 years into two hours, but I think they made a great job," Sandoval says. "Everybody have a story to tell. HBO decided to share my story with the people, and that's a great privilege for me and my family, you know? It's gonna be there for generations to come. My great-grandchildren will have an idea how we get here, the whole process."

While he's been known to delve into every genre of music from classical to pop – more on that later – Sandoval is revered as the era's finest purveyor of Cubop. He's released several albums hailed by critics as among the finest and most important jazz recordings of the past two decades.

Among those is his 2003 release, "Trumpet Evolution," wherein Sandoval re-traces the steps of 19 pivotal trumpeters throughout the last century, ranging from Gillespie, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong to orchestral maestros such as Maurice Andre, Rafael Méndez, and Timofei Dokshizer. Sandoval adopts the tone and spirit of his heroes to positively uncanny effect, serving up a one-man primer of his instrument's progression through the decades.

"I'm very, very proud of that record," Sandoval crows. "As a trumpet player, I couldn't do anything more important than that. There's 19 individuals, 19 sounds, 19 approaches to the trumpet over more than 100 years."

Conversely, Sandoval has also been subject to brutal critical assault when he strays too far from jazz. "Americana," released in 1999, was the nadir of an otherwise esteemed career. It wasn't so much that Sandoval tackled material by such unlikely company as the Carpenters, Billy Joel and Lionel Ritchie, but that the arrangements and his performance were melodically literal, unimaginative. Characteristically, Sandoval defends the album, and his eclecticism in general, as fervently as he does his finest work.

"Let me tell you something – to please everybody is impossible, and that's okay," he fumes, apparently still seething over the critical battering now five years removed. "It was an idea. You like it, okay; you don't, I'm sorry. My idea was to share my appreciation for American pop music. Some people are mono-thematic. Some people want to enclose you in one little thing and you don't come out of that, and in my case, that's not possible. I don't want to just be a jazz musician or a Latino or whatever – don't put that in my thing because I love music, and for me, whatever sound good, I like it. I don't wanna be in a little box without the freedom to do whatever I feel. Freedom in general is the most beautiful thing, and I'm gonna die like that. No freedom, no life. That's the reason I escape from my home country – looking for freedom."

Despite this curious foray into Herb Alpert-worthy schmaltz, don't think for a second that Sandoval isn't dead serious about his jazz. An educator as well as a performer, Sandoval is on a mission to spread the gospel of what many consider America's most important domestic art form. He's disheartened by the lack of interest and regard jazz holds for the average American, and determined to rectify this gaping flaw.

"I don't think at any other time that music in general has been such a problem like today," he says. "The people who broadcast, the media in general, don't pay enough attention to jazz. They don't educate the public. I do a lot of clinic and master class and tour all over the country and ask question of the students – who was Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong. They don't know this, but they know who the last rapper in New York was.

"And it's mostly here in the United States, the natural producer of this music," he notes. "The amount of music to come out of America is amazing. We make an influence in the rest of the world. All everybody play here is rock, but jazz has respect and admiration all over the rest of the world. The day the American people forget the importance of jazz as a cultural message, we are fucked up. It's very important to keep that tradition and teach the younger generation of America how important and beautiful it is."

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