Every time trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval plays, he gives a tutorial. The same can be said of many musicians, of course, but what sets Sandoval apart is his example as a man and as an American. Those qualities were on full display Saturday, as he performed with his renowned big band and a high school band.
The naturalized Cuban exile left his country at great personal risk for the United States. Not content with a music career with an international profile, he has become a hands-on advocate for music in Southern California public schools.
Sandoval headed Saturday's "Save the Music 2!" benefit at the Alex Theatre, the site of last year's inaugural fundraiser for ASI, the Arturo Sandoval Institute. The near-capacity crowd of 1,300 people swelled the coffers of ASI, which brings scholarships, private instruction and master classes music to deserving students. Spokeswoman and ASI board member Mercy Velazquez announced the organization's mission is to "educate, support and inspire our students."
Results of that program delighted the Alex audience, as an all-star orchestra of student players from Glendale, Hoover, Calabasas and Crescenta Valley high schools opened the show. Led by director Frank Vardaros, the band acquitted itself reasonably well while backing Sandoval on his bolero, "Closely Dancing." Orchestra sections — trumpet, trombone and reeds — need to cook slowly over time to develop cohesion. Rhythm sections, in particular, need time and effort to adhere, and this one would benefit from more experience and playing time together.
Sandoval exited and on an unannounced swing bounce, tenor saxophonist Kevin Kasimov showed promise in getting around his horn. Trumpeter Sam Kang gave an exuberant solo, causing Vardaros to bring the dynamics of the ensemble up underneath him for some spontaneous excitement.
"Sounded beautiful, guys," Sandoval quipped as he reentered. "Sounds much better without me."
He then introduced every band member as each was given a certificate of appreciation. After an intermission, Sandoval joined with his own rhythm section. On the lilting "Bye Bye Blackbird," his trumpet danced lightly. By the third chorus the groove deepened, as drummer Johnny Friday emphasized the backbeats. Sandoval got into some serious swinging, while pianist Randy Waldman played with the beat, then against it, as bar lines were crossed on his wonderful solo.
"The most important word in the dictionary is 'freedom,'" Sandoval proclaimed. "Without it, there is nothing to life. The second most important word is 'smile.'" He then combined with singer Monica Mancini on Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," for a silk-and-sandpaper vocal duet. His trumpet tone was thick and rich, and brought to mind the late virtuoso Rafael Mendes.
A horn contingent from Sandoval's big band assembled for a two-beat rave-up on the warhorse "When the Saints Come Marchin' In." It was a treat to hear reed king Bob Sheppard and Andy Martin indulge in some trumpet-clarinet-and-trombone two-beat playing. On this, Sandoval's steely tone nodded in the direction of Al Hirt.
The whole of Sandoval's big band assembled next. Made up of some of the most renowned players in the Hollywood recording studios (with the addition of actor Andy Garcia on bongos), Sandoval was framed in stunning relief. Sheppard — on customary tenor sax — bopped, trombonist Alex Iles preached, and Sandoval got loose on "Funky Cha Cha," which was just what the title promised. A trumpet duet full of fireworks with the equally gifted Wayne Bergeron was a summit that begs for an album, if not a tour.
The late bebop avatar Dizzy Gillespie facilitated Sandoval's escape from Cuba, and he mentored the young trumpeter until his passing in 1993. Using the Gillespie Big Band's "'Round Midnight" introduction, Sandoval's "Dear Diz: Every Day I Think of You" was a heartfelt tribute with rich, orchestral color. Five young men from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy improvised a slow motion display of acrobatic muscle control. A sizzling version of Dizzy's "Manteca" was augmented by a torrid Mambo accompaniment by two young Debbie Allen dancers.
Sandoval prospered from a hand up and his gratitude and actions repay that largesse in kind. Instrumental virtuosity is not rare, but combined with Sandoval's character and good citizenship, it's a rare commodity.
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.