In the early 1970s, trumpet legend Arturo Sandoval went to jail for jazz.
“I was doing my three years of obligatory military service,” said the 70-year-old musician who is in Mumbai to perform at the National Centre for the Performing Arts’ Add Art Festival this weekend. “I was listening to the Voice of America Jazz Hour on my short wave radio when the sergeant caught me. They said I was listening to the voice of the enemy. It’s very difficult to understand. It’s something against any logic.”
The three months he spent in detention failed to douse the young man’s passion for “the music of the imperialists”, as jazz was described in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Since the mid-1970s, Sandoval has established himself as one of the most innovative figures in jazz, playing a key role in enlivening the imperialists’ music with the Afro-Cuban musical traditions of his native island. He has won an astonishing ten Grammy awards – and has been nominated for the prize 19 times.
“It’s the rhythm,” said Sandoval in a phone interview with Scroll.in, explaining the appeal of his sound. “When you mix that with bebop correctly, it’s a powerful style of music. It makes a great combination.”
Sandoval first grabbed international attention as a member of Irakere, the Cuban supergroup formed in 1974. The members of the group – keyboardist Chucho Valdes and saxophonist Paquito d’Rivera among them – had played alongside each other in the larger Orquestra Cubana de Música Moderna but felt constricted by its big band format.
The Orquestra had about 25 members. “We left to start Irakere because a smaller band offered a lot more possibilities to play the music we wanted to,” Sandoval said. Given the opportunity, the musicians would rather have been performing straight-ahead jazz. Since they weren’t allowed to do that, they told the government that they were creating “experimental Cuban music”.
“The thing we did was to play Afro-Cuban rhythms and underneath we improvised bebop,” the trumpet player said. The Encyclopedia of Music in the 20th Century delineated the elements of the Irakere sound more precisely: it is “an amalgam of Latin jazz, Cuban folk …Western jazz and rock n roll”.
Irakere went on to perform around the Eastern Bloc. Recalled Sandoval, “There was a great spirit. We were playing together for many years before Irakere. We knew each other very well. We had a lot of things in common. We loved jazz. We wanted to develop a kind of new sound. We had a great time.”
In 1978, Irakere made their US debut, “wowing audiences at the Newport Jazz Festival and generally sending critics from coast to coast running to their thesauruses for proper superlatives”, reported The Washington Post.
The previous year, Sandoval had an encounter that would change his life. The American trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie – one of the musicians at the forefront of creating the bebop style that Sandoval loved – stopped over briefly in the Cuban capital Havana while on a cruise in the Caribbean. Sandoval drove out to the harbor to see him and took him on a tour of the city.
Gillespie eventually invited Sandoval to join his band. In 1990, while on tour in Europe, Gillespie helped Sandoval to defect to the US. “He was my hero before we met,” said Sandoval. “Later on, he became my mentor. I wrote a song for him, I dedicated an album to him and every day I play his music.”
In 2000, the dramatic events surrounding the trumpet player’s defection became the inspiration for an HBO film, For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story, starring Andy Garcia.
Thirteen years later, Sandoval’s adopted country honoured him by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Born into poverty in Cuba and held back by his government, he risked everything to share his gifts with the world,” said Barak Obama at the investiture ceremony. Sandoval, said Obama, “has inspired audiences in every corner of the world and awakened a new generation of great performers. He remains one of the best ever to play.”
The quest for freedom, said the trumpet player, has characterised his life and his art. “I 150% hate Communism,” he said. “I hate dictators and repression. I love freedom and believe that the most important thing in life is freedom. Freedom is the most beautiful word in the dictionary.”
Before heading out to his concerts in Mumbai, Sandoval picked five albums and tracks he’s cut that he believes are particularly noteworthy.
In this 2003 album, Sandoval pays tribute to some of his heroes. “Sandoval reproduces the notes, sound values and, for the most part, spirit of players as stylistically and temperamentally varied as Roy Eldridge and Chet Baker, Bix Beiderbecke and Maynard Ferguson, Fats Navarro and Harry James,” said Jazz Times. “One can only imagine the study, concentration, woodshedding and experimentation with instruments and mouthpieces that went into imitating so wide a range of styles.”
I Remember Clifford
In 1992, Sandoval recorded a tribute album to another of his influences, Clifford Brown, who died in a car accident in 1956, aged only 25 years.
“Everybody that I’ve spoken to, who knew Brownie, coincided in describing his heart and his simplicity as an artist,” Sandoval wrote in the liner notes. “Modesty, feelings, dignity and virtuosity; not a bad legacy. ... It is with all my heart and soul that I offer this sincere effort to one of the greatest trumpet players of all time; a man who left his mark as a person and as an artist.”
Ultimate Duets from 2018 was the result of the trumpet player asking 11 vocalists to bring a favourite song to the studio, to be reimainged together. His creative partners included ABBA vocalist Anni-Frid Lyngstad, opera star Placido Domingo and the master innovator Stevie Wonder.
“Sandoval soars throughout, imbuing the album with all the heartfelt love and enthusiasm one feels from his live concerts,” noted a review in allmusic.com.
To Diz With Love
This song composed for his mentor is from the 1993 album Dream Come True. Said allmusic,com, “This is one of trumpeter Arturo Sandoval’s more restrained sessions but he cuts loose effectively in some spots. Accompanied by one of two orchestras arranged and conducted by Michel Legrand on most of the selections, Sandoval displays his warm tone and infuses songs such as Little Sunflower, Once Upon a Summertime and To Diz with Love with lots of feeling...”
Flight to Freedom
“On his American debut [in 1991], Sandoval mostly performs boppish jazz...with slight touches of rock and spiced with Latin percussion,” wrote allmusic.com. “The trumpeter shows restraint on the ballads (including a tasty Body and Soul) and displays plenty of fire on the often-funky uptempo romps, not overdoing the effortless high notes.”