Ever since I picked up a clarinet in the Central School band, I’ve had a soft spot for great big jazz bands. While my friends were lining up for the Stones and the Dead and some others we’ve blissfully forgotten by now, I was heading off to see Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich. And I couldn’t figure out why everybody else wasn’t doing the same.
Let me say right off that the term “Big Band” was much misunderstood, then and now. The general public still associates it with the Swing Era, and nine hours of “Ken Burns Jazz” didn’t do much to dissuade them. But the truth is, by the seventies most of the big bands had evolved from dance to performance bands, featuring textured compositions by the likes of Basie, Ellington and Kenton, dynamic originals and arrangements by Thad Jones, Herman and jazz covers of everyone from the Beatles to Frank Zappa. All that, plus knock-em-dead fireworks from the horn sections. If you have ever picked up a horn at any level, nothing beats the excitement of sitting in the middle of a sax or trumpet section, whaling away.
Over the next six weeks here in LA we’ve got a bunch of terrific big bands coming through town, including Arturo Sandoval, Gerald Wilson, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and Christian McBride’s Big Band. Here’s my review of Cuban trumpeter Sandoval, from International Review of Music:
Live Jazz: The Arturo Sandoval Big Band at The Federal
By Michael Katz
The spirit of Dizzy Gillespie was much in evidence Wednesday night when trumpeter Arturo Sandoval brought a distinctly L.A.-flavored big band to The Federal in NoHo. It wasn’t just the fact that Sandoval’s new CD, Dear Diz, is a love letter to his late mentor. It was the combination of virtuosity, humor and generosity of spirit that made Gillespie beloved among musicians and audiences.
Sandoval can still reach the stratosphere with his piercing solos, but during the evening he explored the full range of the trumpet, reaching down deep on occasion, growling in the lower registers before leaping upward with startling cadenzas. He began with one of his older compositions, “Funky Cha Cha,” which allowed the band, comfortably ensconced on The Federal’s stage, to stretch out. That included the redoubtable Bob Sheppard on tenor, Andy Martin on trombone and a young pianist from Sri Lanka (by way of USC), Mahesh Balasooriya. Balasooriya sparkled throughout the set, providing a nuanced counterpoint to Sandoval’s performance.
From that point on the spotlight was on Gillespiana. Sandoval began with a sometimes hilarious explanation of be-bop, which featured him scat-o-lizing (patent pending) through the self-named tune, covering every instrument in Diz’s band. The actual performance of “Be-Bop” was a revelation. Gordon Goodwin’s arrangement started with a gently swinging presentation of the theme, Sandoval’s trumpet muted, exhibiting the in-the-pocket feel we’ve come to know from the Big Phat Band (several of whose members were in this group). Then the tempo picked up, with the saxophone section taking over and Arturo out front with a fiery riff. The band then backed down into a swinging groove, with Sandoval closing it out — not satisfied with the final cadenza, he took a mulligan and nailed it the second time, to the delight of the crowd.
As the set progressed, Sandoval shared the stage with terrific soloists. Trumpeter Gary Grant joined him out front for “And Then She Stopped,” taking Sandoval’s part from his recording with Diz, while Arturo echoed Gillespie’s solos. Then singer Becky Martin joined the band for a lush tune entitled “Sway,” which brought to mind the Cuban mambo bands.
The evening’s most poignant moments were provided by Sandoval’s vocals, as he performed his composition “Every Day I Think Of You.” His voice a tad raspy, his lyrics heartfelt, he conveyed his love for Gillespie, who brought him to the international stage and helped him escape the Castro regime in 1990. Pianist Balasooriya provided a perfectly understated accompaniment. There was even a moment of pathos as Sandoval’s trumpet solo was interrupted by a car alarm. Sandoval took it in stride, as if the alarm was just a slightly out of tune student.
Sandoval then invited another dynamic young LA musician, saxophonist Zane Musa, to the stage. Musa unwrapped his soprano and what followed was a whirlwind rendition of “Cherokee.” Watching Musa’s fingers flying over the soprano’s keys was a wonderment, and he did it with complete tonal control over the sometimes challenging instrument. Sandoval, meanwhile, took advantage of the old be-bop favorite to rip off some of the cadenzas the audience had been waiting for.
The set ended with the Diz classic “Woody’N You,” which Sandoval identified by its original title, “Algo Bueno.” The arrangement by saxophonist Dan Higgins was reminiscent of Goodwin’s earlier work – solid, swinging, in-the-pocket. It featured solos by Higgins and LA trombone stalwart Scott Martin. Sandoval, closing out the show, brought his trumpet down to an almost guttural lower register, then soared upwards for the finish.
The crowd, which filled the upstairs room at the Federal, was on its feet, boding well for the future of the venue as a jazz magnet.
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