Posted on Fri, Nov. 12, 2004

Cuba's free spirit

Special to the Mercury News

Arturo Sandoval is one intense musician. In his work, conversation and life, the ferociously gifted trumpeter is a personification of the ardent artist. His music can be breathtaking, feral, seemingly super-human.

One root of Sandoval's intensity is his upbringing in Fidel Castro's Cuba. A free spirit long restrained under a dictatorship, he felt stifled and frustrated both personally and musically.

Mentored by the bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, whose furious, upper-register blowing Sandoval absorbed, the Cuban musician defected to the United States with Gillespie's aid in 1990. His liberation has been bittersweet, though.

``I suffered in my homeland under dictatorship, and they'' -- the people of Cuba -- ``still suffer for 46 years now,'' Sandoval, 55, says. ``I still have a lot of relatives there. It's a beautiful country with the wrong government. The people deserve something better than they have now. They're starving, and worse than that, they're hopeless.''

Sandoval's struggles and triumphs were documented in the 2000 HBO film ``For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story,'' starring Andy Garcia.

``It's difficult to put 50 years into two hours, but I think they did a great job,'' Sandoval says. ```Everybody has a story to tell. HBO decided to share my story with the people, and that's a great privilege for me and my family, you know? It's going to be there for generations to come. My great-grandchildren will have an idea how we got here, the whole process.''

While he has delved into every musical genre from classical to pop, Sandoval is revered as the finest purveyor of Cu-bop. He has released several albums ranked by critics as among the finest jazz recordings of the past two decades.

Those include his latest release, ``Trumpet Evolution'' (2003), on which Sandoval re-traces the steps of 19 pivotal trumpeters throughout the past century, ranging from Gillespie, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong to orchestral maestros such as Maurice Andre, Rafael Méndez and Timofei Dokshizer. Sandoval adopts the tone and spirit of these heroes to positively uncanny effect, serving up a primer of his instrument's progression through the decades.

``I'm very, very proud of that record,'' Sandoval says. ``As a trumpet player, I couldn't do anything more important than that. There's 19 individuals, 19 sounds, 19 approaches to the trumpet over more than 100 years.''

When straying from jazz, however, Sandoval has been subjected to a brutal critical assault. ``Americana'' (1999), with songs popularized by the Carpenters, Billy Joel and Lionel Ritchie, might be considered the nadir of his career, because both the arrangements and his performance were melodically literal and unimaginative. Still, Sandoval defends the album and his eclecticism in general.

``Let me tell you something: To please everybody is impossible, and that's OK,'' he says. ``It was an idea. You like it, OK; you don't, I'm sorry. My idea was to share my appreciation for American pop music. Some people are mono-thematic.

``Some people want to enclose you in one little thing, and you don't come out of that. In my case, that's not possible. I don't want to just be a jazz musician or a Latino or whatever . . . because I love music. And for me, whatever sounds good -- I like it. I don't want to be in a little box without the freedom to do whatever I feel. Freedom, in general, is the most beautiful thing, and I'm going to die like that: No freedom, no life. That's the reason I escaped from my home country -- looking for freedom.''

Despite ``Americana,'' Sandoval remains dead serious about jazz. An educator as well as a performer, he is on a mission to spread the gospel.

``The people who broadcast, the media in general, don't pay enough attention to jazz. They don't educate the public. I do a lot of clinic and master classes and tour all over the country and ask questions of the students: Who was Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong? They don't know this, but they know who the last rapper in New York was. And it's mostly here in the United States, the natural producer of this music.

``The amount of music to come out of America is amazing,'' he continues. ``We influence the rest of the world. All everybody plays here is rock, but jazz has respect and admiration all over the rest of the world. . . . It's very important to keep that tradition and teach the younger generation of America how important and beautiful it is.''

Arturo Sandoval

Where: Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Tuesday through Nov. 20, 2 and 8 p.m. Nov 21

Tickets: $16-$22

Call: (510) 238-9200, or check

© 2004 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.