Arturo excises technical fireworks for an album of danceable big band charts.
In 1989, Dizzy Gillespie took his United Nations Orchestra to the Royal Festival Hall in London. The band was packed with future standouts of the jazz world -- saxophonists Paquito D’Rivera and James Moody, trombonist Steve Turre and trumpeter Claudio Roditi, to name a few -- but Cuban-born Arturo Sandoval frequently found himself in front of the band, showcasing his extended trumpet range and ability to play at a blistering pace. A scene during that concert, released on DVD, typifies the dynamic of the group. What begins as a friendly exchange of ideas on “And Then She Stopped” quickly becomes a vehicle for Sandoval’s chops. Gillespie takes a short trumpet solo, a rhythmic line of carefully though-out notes. Sandoval, trading phrases with Gillespie, unleashes a torrent of chromaticism at the top of his range. This goes on for a few minutes, the two of them sparring with four-measure improvisations. After a particularly ridiculous passage, where Sandoval dizzyingly glides his fingers over his trumpet’s valves, Gillespie turns to Sandoval and gives him a quizzical look. Sandoval just shrugs and laughs it off, it all being part of a larger joke.
The joke was that Sandoval’s outlandish technique caused problems on the bandstand. His technique was showmanship on the highest level, but it was fine, because that’s what excited audiences. When Sandoval started his own career, however, these brilliant strings of finger acrobatics saturated his work, sometimes at the expense of musicality. “Mambo Influenciado” from 1988’s Straight Ahead typifies this approach. Though the rest of the date is filled with substantive trumpet playing and Sandoval’s warm fluegelhorn tone, “Influenciado”, the second track on the disc, is pure fireworks. In 2001, Sandoval released a record of piano compositions, but this effort simply translated his most fluid wanderings to another instrument. It’s impressive, but there isn’t much substance beyond the lines, meandering through tunes at brake-neck speed.
Sandoval’s technique did afford him opportunities to play on pop records. In 2004, he dueted with Kenny G, and Sandoval helped with all three of Rod Stewart’s American Songbook recordings. The trumpeter has also kept the sound of his birthplace in the forefront, recordings with Latin Jazz orchestras as well as small Cuban-influenced combos. On his latest release, Rhumba Palace, Sandoval foregrounds his Cuban roots, eschewing pyrotechnics for a cohesive ensemble sound. He composed most of the tunes, and they all convey an underlying beat, a rhythmic intensity, that was sometimes lost in his stratospheric wanderings. A rumba, after all, is a type of dance. In most of the tracks, hip pops and shoulder movements are felt in the music, the array of percussion providing a syncopated backdrop that keeps the Afro-Cuban momentum no matter what the rest of the orchestra plays.
The CD opens with “A Gozar”, a riff-based, additive number, with each melody flowing on top of the next to create a steamy polyphony. Backed by an ethereal synth, rolling hand drums, and other percussion, a groove is established within the first measure. It’s a groove that never stops, even when Sandoval takes a short, warm solo. A repeated phrase, shouted in short, clipped passages by a gathering of male voices, reinforces the main melody. High trumpet squeals enter Sandoval’s solo, but these seem like a natural progression of the line and don’t detract from the solo’s potency. “21st Century” is the first instance of acrobatic trumpet work, but, since the entire composition is an uptempo workout, this hardly seems out of place. Part of this has to do with a mix that puts Sandoval in the background and brings the rhythm section out. Presented in this fashion, rhythm becomes the center of each composition, and the pervasive movement of the percussion grounds each soloist.
On an album dedicated to movement, the lethargic “Peaceful”, with its dense synthesizer accompaniment behind a piano, stands out. It’s an introspective piece, and Sandoval’s solo is bare and vulnerable -- at one point he even flubs a note -- but, after an album full of vivacious rhythms and loud brass, this track feels like it was simply thrown in at the end. “Having Fun”, while it picks up on the rumba theme of the album, starts with an ill-advised keyboard solo. A mix between a bamboo flute and a rainstick, this sound pegs this number to a timeframe. Most of the album belongs to no period in time, instead cultivating a feeling, but this solo and other electronic patches tie the band to a period of musical excess. Yet “Peaceful” is the only real misstep on the CD, a detour into ballad territory on an album brimming with movement.