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By Ashley Rogers
Since the release in 1991 of Flight to Freedom, Arturo Sandoval's U.S. recording debut on the GRP label, the Cuban trumpeter has given ample evidence of his indefatigable search for ways to remain true to his muse. In the little more than twelve years that have passed since his defection from Cuba, Sandoval's work has been defined by diversity and the extension of his already considerable range.
Sandoval's recorded output so far includes straight-ahead jazz projects (Swingin' and I Remember Clifford), classical works (The Classical Album), film soundtracks (For Love or Country), Afro-Cuban reflections (Danzón and The Latin Train), a collection of popular compositions (Americana), and other musical explorations. The new My Passion for the Piano adds significantly and fruitfully to what is already a widely admired corpus. Significantly because the musician switch-hits from his main instrument. And fruitfully because the recording allows a glimpse of another facet of Sandoval's musical world.
Recorded toward the end of 2001, during a week of reportedly relaxed communion among five eloquent and technically gifted musicians, the twelve tracks included on My Passion for the Piano constitute a statement of love for the keyboard from one of today's top trumpeters.
"My purpose was not at all to produce a profound, innovative, and extraordinary piano album," Sandoval said in a recent interview. "The only thing I wanted to do was share with listeners my great passion for the instrument."
The other musicians on the project are Ernesto Simpson, who was the trumpeter's drummer during Sandoval's last years in Cuba; bassist Dennis Marks; and percussionist Samuel Torres. As a guest artist the CD also includes Miami-based saxophonist Ed Calle, a regular contributor to Sandoval's recorded projects.
Sandoval has long been interested in the piano, although in his native country -- and notwithstanding his immense popularity there -- he was never able to own one. But his interest was relatively superficial until his musical mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, inspired him to take the instrument seriously. "Dizzy made me realize one day that the piano is the perfect tool for a proper understanding of music in all its complexity," Sandoval said recently. "What you can do on a piano you simply cannot do, in the same way, on any other instrument. Everything that I've composed, in fact, I've composed on the piano. The instrument is a great, great teacher."
What is immediately apparent on My Passion for the Piano is Sandoval's concern with diversity of repertoire, for the disc includes blues and standards, several original compositions by Sandoval, and two by Dennis Marks. This choice of material is good because there is arguably nothing better than the blues and the standard song repertoire to display a musician's abilities and creative reach. And if to that you add a few original compositions, then you have all that is needed to get a good picture of the musical prowess on hand.
The interpretations on the album have a spontaneous freshness that gives the recording the general feel of a live performance. Sandoval's tendency to intensify his improvisations much too quickly is apparent on some of the tracks, especially on "Blues in F," in which you find yourself immersed in heavy-handed pianism before you ever get a chance to settle into the mood of the piece. In all fairness, however, this formerly characteristic tendency of Sandoval's is something that I have happily noticed less and less in recent years.
Sandoval's reading of the standard "All the Things You Are" begins with a fanciful piano introduction à la Erroll Garner that would be more enjoyable if it were shorter. Later in the piece the listener is increasingly distracted from the development of the improvisations by the monotony of the pianist's left-hand work.
But these admittedly less than flattering observations should not discourage the listener from sharing My Passion for the Piano. "Marianela Says Goodbye," an original Sandoval composition, is a beautifully constructed melodic statement, and so is Dennis Marks's "Departure." Armando Manzanero's "Esta Tarde Vi Llover" turns out to be a great vehicle for some lyrical pianism from Sandoval and shows us that the Latin American songbook can often be a great source of fresh material. The work of Ed Calle is as distinctive and reliable as ever, and the support given by Simpson, Marks, and Torres is perfectly solid. The highlight of the CD is the Latin American waltz "Sureña," another well-structured Sandoval original, in which the melody is rich and the improvisations are expressive.
Arturo Sandoval is an immensely talented musical figure who continues to grow and broaden his range. This album is not only a great addition to an already distinguished discography; it is a musical statement that effectively conveys passion for the piano -- from one of the world's top trumpeters.