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JAZZ | Spotlight

A Revealing Look at Sandoval's Many Talents

November 19, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval has been the most visible jazz artist to emerge from the wave of gifted performers who have surfaced from the island nation in the past two decades. And that visibility is being enhanced with HBO's repeated airing this month and next of the biographical film "For Love or Country," featuring Andy Garcia as Sandoval.

The story, understandably, has both personal and political ramifications, yet it is Sandoval's extraordinary musical skills that are at the heart of the matter. Like his mentor and model, Dizzy Gillespie, Sandoval is a multitalented artist, capable of performing at masterful levels as a trumpeter, composer-arranger, keyboardist and scat singer. And he does a bit of all on the film's soundtrack.

"Music From the HBO Film 'For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story' " (*** 1/2, Atlantic Records). This is a stunning showcase, a far-ranging opportunity for Sandoval to display the full extent of his abilities. The music encompasses re-creations of "Manteca" and "A Night in Tunisia," simulating their performance by Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra (of which Sandoval was a member). There are also several lyrical originals featuring Sandoval accompanying his trumpet or fluegelhorn with his keyboard playing (via overdubbing) on Cuban classics such as "Quimbombo" and "Guantanamera," as well as a gorgeous arrangement of "The Man I Love" by Armando Romeu. The latter--rescued from oblivion by Sandoval--dates to the '60s and the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music in the years before American music was largely repressed.

Sandoval handles everything demanded of him superbly, from the Gillespian pyrotechnics to the haunting fluegelhorn ballads, from original works such as the sweet dedication to his instrument--"Canta Trompeta Querida" (Sing My Beloved Trumpet), sung by Oscar De Leon--to his utterly astounding scat vocalizing on "Blues for Diz." Dramatic film biographies are fine, but this is the real stuff, the real Sandoval in action, and it's a memorable soundscape of a gifted artist at the height of his powers.

Sandoval is not quite as present in another new recording, "Jam Miami: A Celebration of Latin Jazz" (***, Concord Jazz), but the performances, which also feature Chick Corea, Poncho Sanchez, Claudio Roditi, Dave Samuels, Dave Valentin and others, in addition to the Latin Jazz All-Stars Big Band, are all first-rate. Interestingly, there is what appears to be an alternate version of the same arrangement of "A Night in Tunisia"--by Ed Calle--featured on the Sandoval soundtrack album. In this case, the solos are divided between Sandoval and Roditi, making for a stirring explosion of trumpet improvisation.

The program, recorded live in concert, also showcases Sandoval in his own "A Mis Abuelos." But Corea is also prominent, especially in "Wigwam," a track that features his Origin ensemble stirringly backed by the big band. And the spirit of Tito Puente courses through many of the pieces, most notably in "Medley Para Tito," featuring arrangements of the salsa king's "Ran Kan Kan" and "Oye, Como Va" by a longtime associate, trumpeter Ray Vega, with upfront soloing by Valentin, another Puente alumnus.

Sandoval probably hasn't spent a lot of time in Finland lately, but the spirit of Latin jazz is alive and well, amazingly, in a country with few tropical associations. "Jere Laukkanen's Finnish Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra" (***, Naxos Jazz) is an ensemble that clearly understands both the spirit and the content of the music. And the distance from the heartbeat of Latin jazz may have encouraged Laukkanen to stretch the parameters of his creative perspective. His arrangement of the Gillespie/Chano Pozo "Manteca," for example, retains most of the original qualities while adding some strikingly contemporary groove qualities to the mix. It works a lot better than one might have anticipated. The album also includes Laukkanen's unusual transformation of Jaco Pastorius' "Teen Town" (written for Weather Report) and a group of impressive originals. Any doubters who question the global reach of jazz in general, and Latin jazz in particular, are directed to the superb writing and playing on this easy-to-overlook album.

The Rippingtons and Russ Freeman offer yet another take on Latin jazz with "Life in the Tropics" (** 1/2, Peak/Concord Records). Well, perhaps it's more accurate to say a smooth jazz take on Latin jazz. Because at its heart, this is music best suited for a late-night cruise up the coast. Its Latin rhythms tend to move in an orbit of floating bossa nova, jaunty samba, a trace of reggae and the insistent groove of nouveau flamenco. Freeman is always impressive when he plays acoustic guitar, as he does (in the company of guitarist Peter White) on such aptly titled numbers as "Caribbean Breeze."

Most of the other appealing tracks are those that abandon the familiar Rippingtons' laid-back format of placing a saxophone up front (on this release, featuring Eric Marienthal and Dave Koz among others), in favor of a mix of appealing acoustic sounds; some energetic, high-voltage horn passages; and attractive vocalizing from "Daisy" Lourdes Villa. And it is on those numbers that the Rippingtons reveal some real potential for moving beyond the mind-numbing repetition of the smooth jazz arena.

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