Review: Arturo Sandoval with the UK Wind Symphony

Legendary trumpeter dazzles with student ensemble

Contributing music criticDecember 15, 2013 

Arturo Sandoval grew up on Afro-Cuban music, but he said his life changed when he heard a song by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

COURTESY OF ARTURO SANDOVAL

If jazz, in its purest form, is an act of spontaneous creation, then last night’s performance by multiple Grammy winning trumpeter Arturo Sandoval at the Singletary Center for the Arts was a master class in the art form.

By all advance indications, the concert – a collaboration with the University of Kentucky Wind Symphony – was to feature a largely classical leaning repertoire. For the brief 20 minutes that made up the concert’s first half, that was essentially the case.

The symphony, under the direction of John Cody Birdwell, flexed its considerable musical muscle, sans strings (save for double bass) on Kenneth Hesketh’s Masque. From the onset, this was a powerful unit that effectively highlighted the piece’s Stravinsky-like color and drama, especially in the gale force intensity and precision summoned from the symphony’s trombone line.

The Cuban born Sandoval was then enlisted for the Concerto for Trumpet by Aremenian composer Alexander Arutiunian. The piece is a longtime favorite of Sandoval. He recorded it two decades ago and continued last night to deftly navigate the spry themes that began and ended the piece. He has lost just a touch of the precision that in years past punctuated the themes, but that is a minor quibble. Sandoval’s tone was continually rich and expressive, especially in quieter, impressionistic passages.

But when he returned for a brief reprise of the concerto’s cadenza, the attitude of the evening loosened considerably with an animated show of trumpet range than ran from chiming highs to flatulent lows.

The performance’s second half can best be termed a playful hijacking. After the symphony again went it alone on Frank Ticheli’s Blue Shades, Sandoval returned but quickly interrupted the program to insert an elegant solo piano reading of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. That led into a teaming with doctorate student conductor Kenneth Javier Iyescas for a robust La Virgin de la Macarena, a piece familiar as an unofficial global theme for bullfighting. Here is where the program was joyously upended. With Sandoval’s performance spirit soaring alongside his octave busting runs on trumpet, Birdwell sat out in the hall to witness the symphony’s hammering retorts to Sandoval’s gusto as an audience member.

A somewhat clumsy reading of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story ballad Maria followed with UK faculty trombonist and soloist Bradley Kerns oddly out of sync with the symphony. Sandoval returned again for three stylistically varied finale tunes that gradually brought the entire performance under his direction.

The first was an original ballad, Every Day I Think of You, that Sandoval penned and sang in honor of mentor and jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie. It was hardly a performance of vocal grandeur, but Sandoval’s conversational singing was obviously heartfelt.

A surprise showing by New York-turned-Lexington trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, along with the rhythmic support of the Osland-Dailey Jazztet, ignited a mambo flavored take on the Duke Ellington standard Caravan (one of three pieces arranged by UK doctorate student Jim Daughters, who also guest conducted Maria). Along with a set-closing ode to his grandparents, A Mis Abuelos, Sandoval was essentially directing traffic by assigning solos on the fly and matching the music’s jubilation in his own playing.

A hastily arranged encore jam was the real eye opener with Birdwell again taking a seat (this time onstage) so Sandoval could shout keys and chords to a scaled down version of the symphony under the soloists. It was scrappy. It was soulful. Best of all, it was an extraordinary exhibition of the improvised spirit that regularly exists within small jazz groups exploding on an orchestral scale. Whatever a remarkable workout and experience it must have been for the student players. What an exhilarating exhibition of music being made thoroughly in the moment it was for the audience.

Sandoval also proved to be, like the great Gillespie (who played on the same Singletary stage in 1982), a masterful raconteur. In referencing last night’s televised basketball game between UK and North Carolina and its effect on the concert’s modest attendance turnout, the jovial Sandoval seemed nonplussed.

“We can live in a world without basketball,” he said. “We cannot live a world without music.”

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