It’s the sort of life about which movies are made. About a musician born in pre-Castro Cuba, mentored first from a distance and then in person by none other than jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. About a musician who then defected to the United States in 1990. Starring, say, Andy Garcia. You’d be reading from a synopsis of “For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story,” an HBO film that featured an original sound track performed and arranged by Sandoval himself.
This was the same musician who this past Saturday evening, heralded by nine Grammy awards and 17 nominations, made his first appearance on Landmark on Main Street’s stage. Sandoval is well known as an accompanist invited to record with the likes of Johnny Mathis, Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys. But within the first few minutes of his performance, featuring his trademark "Flight of the Bumblebee"-inspired ornamentation, it was clear he is a soloist’s soloist.
For the evening of labor and showmanship Sandoval designed a dramatic set list that include a full range of his work, including Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring,” one homage to “Oscar” (Peterson), and another to mentor Dizzy (“Every Day I Think of You”) on which he sang, and closing with a rousing and spectacular rendition of Gillespie’s jazz standard “Night in Tunisia.”
Sandoval is also an extremely capable jazz pianist, showcased in a trumpet-less 2002 CD. But the audience was most enthralled when Sandoval went to the microphone and began a captivating improvised piece in a comic vein – with mouth harp. Before moving to trumpet, then piano, percussion, then back to trumpet, the audience could hardly have anticipated the whirlwind musical lesson that they were about to receive. In the space of the next few minutes, the audience was treated to vocalizations and sounds that ranged from instruments imitating voices, voices imitating instruments, melisma (singing one syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession) and sprechstimme (speech-like singing that does not emphasize particular pitches). It was scat neither Ella nor Mel Torme could have anticipated. It was a tour de force of play and musicology.
As some interviewers have noted, Sandoval is not interested in discussing – or at times even performing – music of his Latin roots, responding to this or that musical label (“salsa,” “Afro-Cuban”) with disdain. Instead his composition and arrangement styles demonstrate his preference for the borderless. He’s a card-carrying citizen of the Dizzy Bebop nation.
Sandoval’s been touring with his own band since 1981. On his Port Washington stop, his touring band included a sextet of percussionist Samuel Torres, drummer Alexis Arce, bassist Dennis Marks, saxophonist Ed Calle and pianist Kemuel Roig – each of whom could have headlined on many stages.
In a region that includes Carnegie Hall, Julliard, the Met and Radio City Music Hall, the term “virtuoso” can be overused. On this occasion, though, to omit the expression would be a capital offense. Whether it’s his range, breath control, tone or number of notes per second that impressed, the description would still be apt.
Landmark regularly features Broadway, folk and rock luminaries. The invitation extended to this jazz trumpet legend ought to be repeated. As it’s been proven that a well-rounded musical diet is the best path to perfect health, this addition to the Landmark diet is a recommended annual allowance.
On April 13, the Landmark brings to town former Traffic guitarist Dave Mason in an acoustic concert.