This afternoon, I was witness to one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life. I know – I find myself saying this virtually every time I get to see Arturo Sandoval live. In only the second live performance with an orchestra in the United States of the Trumpet Concerto that bears his name both as composer and performer, I knew it would be a memorable event. However, even among his many performances, this concert, featuring his Concerto with the Tucson Symphony will stand out.
After briefly visiting with Arturo and his band backstage before the concert, I settled into my seat for another certain wonderful show. After all, I had the privilege of sitting in Arturo’s studio, as he put some of the finishing touches on the Concerto months before its premier a couple years back.
This performance would be with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. A wonderful, but smaller-town orchestra, the TSO boasts talent far beyond its means. What apparently sets the orchestra apart, I have found, is the inner passions inherent in the baton of Music Director, José Luis Gomez. Maestro Gomez, a graduate of La Sistema in Venezuela – the same La Sistema that produced Gustavo Dudamel – the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, proves more than up to the musical tasks set before him. He did not try to lead a classically-trained ensemble in an attempt to play a jazz-tinged accompaniment to one of a true jazz legend, but wisely chose it instead direct them to fill their instruments with a very Latin-style inner intensity of emotion. Indeed, before Arturo walked on stage, Gomez wisely chose to open the program with the dramatic Overture from La Forza del Destino, by Giuseppe Verdi and later closed the first half of the program with highlights from George Bizet’s Carmen and other operatic fare.
Then, too, I noted the TSO’s stellar principal musicians – most of whom are quite young. The Concertmaster, Lauren Roth, is a graduate of the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music and a student of William Preucil, the famed Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra – with whom Ms. Roth incidentally often performed, while still a student. I found her sure-handed lead and solo playing was breathtaking in its emotional intensity – especially in the Sandoval Concerto. Katie Miller, principal trumpet, studied with Mark Gould at the famed Juilliard School of Music and won national and international competitions. Her lead and solo work in La Forza del Destino and Carmen.
After a wonderfully spirited and remarkably well-intoned Overture, Maestro Sandoval walked out to enthusiastic, but rather reserved applause. After all, this was a classical audience, likely largely unfamiliar with his body of work. However, with the opening phrase of his Concerto, marked by a breathtaking flurry of notes, Arturo had “his” audience eating out of his hands! Remarkable in the opening strains, too, was the virtuosic playing of principal flautist, Alexander Lipay, whose crystal-clear solo turn stated the theme in soaring fashion – with sufficient flair that it matched Sandoval’s playing.
Concert etiquette demands that an audience withhold its applause until all the movements of a symphony or – as in this case, a concerto – have been completed. However, so excited was this well-informed, classical music-trained audience, that it forgot itself and wildly applauded after each movement. Indeed, the power of his performance – where he stood in front of a full orchestra – with that huge, booming yet modulated sound of his, grabbed everyone by their collective throats and held them in thrall throughout the three movements, before walking off to thunderous applause.
The second half saw Sandoval’s jazz ensemble revealed in all its glory. However, he did not dismiss the orchestra in favor of his well-practiced band. No – the orchestra opened with the dramatic and powerful opening chords to what sounded as if it would be another operatic offering (the musical program was not laid out in the colorful magazine-styled program that were handed out). However, within seconds, the band, led by Johnny Friday’s exciting drums, launched into Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High.” It was as if Sandoval intended to introduce the orchestra and the audience to Bebop. If that was his intention, he most assuredly succeeded! Having met Arturo, before he had really mastered English, it was incredibly gratifying to hear him announce each song of the set, entertain his audience with colorful stories of his mentor and second father, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, and teach them about that unique art form that Dizzy more or less invented along with Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. To illustrate his point, Arturo began scatting in the Dizzy style, leading into Charlie Parker’s frenzied “Donna Lee,” based on the changes to the old Louis Armstrong classic: “Back Home in Indiana”
At every stop along the way, Arturo took the time to patiently explain what the music was all about, sharing the insights he learned from late night sessions listening to banned Voice of America radio broadcasts that featured the music of Gillespie, Parker, Miles Davis and the other Bebop pioneers.
Because of his Cuban background, but also because of Gillespie’s affinity for the Latin style, Sandoval's ensemble not only features Johnny Friday’s drums, but also the exciting Latin percussion stylings of Tiki Pasillas – a fiery Mexican powerhouse, who has toured with Marc Antony. His ensemble also features the extraordinary Kemuel Roig on piano. Not yet thirty, Kemuel manages to more than hold his own with fellow Cuban, Arturo Sandoval, who is himself virtually without peer on piano as well as the trumpet.
John Belzaguy, Sandoval’s long-time bassist, is a transplant from New York, by way of Santa Fe. Influenced by such iconic bassists as Paul Chambers and Percy Heath, John’s playing complements the group in so many ways – both rhythmically and harmonically – and with more than a little virtuosity in his solo work.
Rounding out the ensemble is the relatively recent addition of Michael Tucker on Tenor Saxophone. At 37, Michael has established himself as first-rate artist, having played alongside vibraphonist Gary Burton, as well as established sax superstars, including Joe Lovano and the late Michael Brecker. In fact, I detected a little Stan Getz influence in his ballad-playing, especially on Arturo’s paean to his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie – “Every Day I Think About You,” and on Arturo’s tender ballad in honor of his grandparents – “A Mis Abuelos.” This latter piece shows the other side of Sandoval’s playing – a mellow, almost flugelhorn-like sound that sends vibrations right down to your toes – especially as he visits that part of his instrument almost no other trumpeter can match – the pedal notes all the way down to double pedal C (Concert Bb).
On this night, as he does on most nights, Arturo wanders from the vocal microphone to the piano, to the electric keyboard, to the timbales – all the while putting his horns to his lips for that extra thrill that only his uniquely passionate performances can conjure.
Whether he is blowing those sonorous pedal tones, as if he were a bass trombonist, or blasting soaring notes all the way up into the dog-whistle range (but his power can hardly be characterized as whistling!), Arturo Sandoval is without peer. By the end of the matinee performance, I found myself with a broad smile on my face and tears of joy in my eyes!
About Mark Schwartz: I am not your average accountant as my interests go beyond merely adding up numbers and preparing tax returns. I was blessed with a tremendous education beginning at the Boston Latin School and continuing at Brandeis University and beyond. I've been a musician and an athlete, a writer and composer. Most importantly, I've developed, over the years, a lust for life that I hope will sustain me the rest of my days.