It is not often in the jazz world that the terms Virtuoso and Maestro are used to describe the same artist. This reviewer has no hesitation in using these appellations for multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Arturo Sandoval in his remarkable performance at the Carolina Theatre's final event in their season's Jazz U series. The latter was co-sponsored by the Art of the Cool Project, a relatively new Durham based organization dedicated to promoting and preserving jazz.
For this concert, the Cuban-born Sandoval chose a sextet format consisting of keyboards, bass, tenor saxophone, and two percussionists and featured himself, primarily on trumpet. The single, approximately two-hour set opened very softly as a duet with only trumpet and bass (Dennis Marks) in a delightful rendition of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo." The fuse was lit and the fireworks began! The subtle pacing of what was to follow is a tribute to the leader's sense of dynamics and obvious desire to communicate with his audience; he succeeded. In recognition of his own jazz heritage, he offered a masterful tribute to the 1959 Miles Davis' version of the standard "Bye, Bye Blackbird," played with muted trumpet that involved audience participation – i.e. a perfectly appropriate vocalization of the title at the requisite places in the chorus. (Later, as an encore, the band offered a rousing version of "Night in Tunisia" by Sandoval's mentor and friend, Dizzy Gillespie.) Much of the concert consisted of Latin-based pieces that reflected the Cuban aesthetic that has had such a profound rhythmic influence on jazz for the last half century. Of particular note were the technical and musical skills of the two percussionists Alexis (drums) and Armando (congas) "Putiti" Arce, especially their respective solos on the Miles Davis/Victor Feldman classic "Seven Steps to Heaven," which gave this usually straight-ahead piece a distinct Cuban tinge. Sandoval also played with equal virtuosity on timbales; most impressive, however, is his extraordinary brilliance as a pianist – he managed to turn his solo rendition of the Jerome Kern ballad "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" into an improvisational tour de force worthy of any first rate "classical" concert pianist – which of course he is! Reference to his website might be appropriate again, at this juncture. He was also not averse to using the electronic keyboard from time to time, for example to create a Hammond B3 organ sound.
The contributions of saxophonist Ed Calle and pianist Kemuel Roig cannot be over-estimated. Calle perfectly complemented Sandoval on the intricate phrasing on the heads of each piece, which was no mean feat since fast runs of 16th and even 32nd notes were common; his solos were exciting and innovative and he didn't hesitate to use the flexibility of the saxophone to extract some delightful bending of the notes to great effect. Similarly Roig exhibited a sensitivity and appreciation of nuance as well as astonishing technical ability in his rhythmic, melodic and harmonic improvisations particularly on an original "six by eight" piece (in 6/8 time). It was disappointing that bassist Marks, who is essentially the rhythmic fulcrum of the band, didn't have more solo time; he gets a clear and well rounded sound out of his part-acoustic and part-amplified bass.
The only negative event of the performance was nothing to do with the music, but seems to be an all too frequent aberration at jazz concerts: the uneven quality of the sound. In this case the constant tweaking of the levels in the supposed anticipation of the performers' needs at times by the so-called sound "engineers" caused a deplorable situation for both the performers and the audience. Such incompetence is unacceptable, and on this occasion caused the leader to halt in the middle of a piece, much to everyone's embarrassment. However Sandoval, being the professional that he is, handled it with good grace, and after a pause of several minutes, playing continued. It turned out that he possibly could add the role of stand-up comedian to his repertoire, since this episode was followed by about ten minutes of anecdotes and jokes, even to the point of acknowledging his only "vice" was smoking cigars, one of which he immediately pulled from his pocket and puffed on for a while (spoiler: it was an e-cigar!). To add a touch of irony to the evening he then sat down at the grand piano to riff on Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" … which he then proceeded to sing, and very well too. Of course this should have been expected from a virtuoso who can demonstrably eek out at least an eight-octave range from a trumpet in the musical context of a tune – as he did on a couple of occasions.
Altogether this was an evening of superb music by six extraordinary musicians that was essentially a master class on jazz. The Jazz U participants must have been very satisfied!