"This instrument is pain," said Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval from the stage of the Jefferson Center in Roanoke last month. Complaining that every inch of his body hurt to hit the extreme high and low notes for which he is renowned, the founding member of Cuba's legendary Latin fusion group Irakere told us something else straight up: He wasn't here to play "salsa," but straight ahead jazz. Granted political asylum in 1990, and U.S. citizenship in 1999, he's certainly earned the right. Explains Sandoval, whose flight into exile was depicted in a Hollywood biopic, "Jazz is freedom."
Walk softly and carry a big horn might be this top technician's mantra. Sandoval hushed us to attention with a stealthy opener, "Mack the Knife," as a bass/trumpet duet. Having established instant immediacy, the ensemble quietly expanded to a quintet, bringing elegiac understatement to standards like "Autumn Leaves" and "Body and Soul" (which Sandoval called, emphatically, his "favorite ballad"). On "Oscar," written for Oscar Peterson, Sandoval showcased his own piano skills.
Chatting between tunes, Sandoval seemed clearly happy to be in front of an audience, and his inner ham came out for some funk and Dixieland strutting down the aisles. With some air trumpet work, he skatted vocals like a Cuban Bobby McFerrin. Ed Calle's tenor saxophone ferociously tag teamed with Sandoval's trumpet throughout, like two elder statesmen engaging in some badass diplomacy. Sandoval thrived on the interplay.
Late in the program, young percussionist Philbert Armenteros advanced to the conga setup, which had stood unmanned for most of the show, to assist with the Latin fusion "The Rhythm of Our World." As a love note to fans of his Latin side, Sandoval even growled a sweet Spanish vocal to the classic serenade, "La Gloria Eres Tu."
The program ended as I imagine Sandoval ends all his concerts—with a recitative from his adopted national anthem. Perhaps because of the recent election, patriotism that might have seemed strident or politicized not so long ago moved the crowd to sing along, a reminder that immigrants can keep our hope alive in dark times.
"He's having the time of his life," assures me Sandoval's pianist backstage, Manuel Valera, a baby-faced 28-year-old with heavy stubble. A composer himself, Valera is much in demand as a keyboardist with gymnastic abilities in both jazz and Latin piano. Originally a saxophonist, he didn't take up the piano as his main instrument until he came to the U.S. in 1994. Valera appeared at Duke in October with Dafnis Prieto's fabulous sextet.
As Sandoval soothed several autograph seekers, Valera introduced me to some of the younger Cubans in the band: conguero Armenteros, and drummer Alexis Arce, one of the "Pututis," a nickname shared by his family of sibling drummers. Alexis is a ringer for his brother Angel, once a member of Miami timba band Tiempo Libre; Alexis tells me Angel is doing solo work now as a singer.
And then, it happened. Somehow, as I was talking to Sandoval's sidemen, the big man breezed by me. I turned to speak, but didn't catch his attention. And before I could take bolder action, he sat down with Ed Calle to a full plate of food. It seemed bad manners to interrupt these dressing room dinner companions, so I chalked it up to a missed opportunity.
Bagging an interview with the big cat may have eluded me, but the young lions—Valera, Arce and Armenteros—stood in need of an afterparty. We did the sensible thing and headed to the Jefferson Center's Latin Dance Party in an adjacent hall, where Sin Miedo, a salsa band from D.C. led by French keyboardist/composer Didier Prossaird, was lighting up its first set. I had seen (and heard of) Prossaird in Adams-Morgan over the years, playing in cozy joints like the now-defunct El Rincon. His weight is balanced by Alfredo Mojica, a slamdunk as timbalero and commanding vocalist, who pushed the band's momentum into serious dancing territory. Students from a nearby college were doing salsa casino, rueda and line-dancing. It's nice to see Cuban styles making it into the Blue Ridge.
Sin Miedo seemed like a compact, road-ready version of itself, but the bare essentials remained intact: two horns, bass, keyboard, congas and timbales. Sandoval's sidemen listened from stage right with approval. After getting acquainted in the break, the second set led with the inevitable brotherhood descarga. Valera sat in on keyboard, Arce on timbales and Armenteros in the rumba seat (congas), heating things up with improvised lyrics and coro standards like "Descarga cubana (Cuban jam session)," and "Como mi ritmo no hay dos (My rhythm is unique)." While Sandoval made spare use of Armenteros in his straight-ahead jazz show, the rumbero leads his own folkloric dance and drumming group, Los Herederos, in Miami.
And speaking of the U.S. city synonymous with Cuban carnaval, book your flights now for Calle Ocho, Miami's Mardi Gras salsa festival extending across Little Havana. According to the official site, the 23-block block party is slated for March 15. Then again, if Puerto Rico's swing is more your thing, El Dia Nacional de la Salsa is coming along March 29. (Read about my trip to National Salsa Day in 2007.) Two posthumous tributes make up this year's theme at the one-day salstravaganza in Hiram Bithorn Stadium outside San Juan: celebrating the legacy of pioneering bandleader Rafael Cortijo, and the "liberation" (from legal limbo, in a recently settled copyright lawsuit) of the music of Tite Curet Alonso, salsa's undisputed champion composer. Confirmed guests include singers Cheo Feliciano, Ismael Miranda, Adalberto Santiago and Andy Montañez, and the bands of Roberto Roena, La Sonora Ponceña and Tommy Olivencia. That's probably just a teaser. Follow developing news through the festival sponsor, Zeta-93 FM Radio.