Flawless rhythms but lacking soul


Arturo Sandoval and the Latin Train
Arturo Sandoval
GRP through MCA
Reviewed by Norm Dixon
Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval is one of Latin jazz's high profile artists. Sadly, this status has as much to do with his decision to flee to the US from his native Cuba as it has with his undoubted talent. His new album, Arturo Sandoval and the Latin Train, is a very nice listen. Technically it is excellent. Sandoval's trumpet playing — excepting a couple of yawn-invoking cabaret ballads — is loud, robust and spectacular. The album features homages to legendary Cuban trumpeter Felix Chappotin, mambo king Perez Prado, and a marvellous Latin take of Coltrane's classic "Giant Steps". With "Be-Bop", Sandoval honours the late Dizzy Gillespie, who did much to popularise Afro-Cuban music in the US. Sandoval's band, anchored firmly by wonderful Afro-Cuban polyrhythm, is flawless. But that is also its weakness. Like Sandoval himself, his music seems to have lost touch with its roots and its purpose. It lacks the gritty, sensual feel that marks the best jazz from Latin America, and the adventurousness of much contemporary Cuban music. Latin Train's precise and highly processed sound has more in common with a ballroom full of dinner suits in some snobby New York cabaret than it has with the working class barrios where this music was born. The stated purpose of this album is sharply at odds with Sandoval's political course. The promo material says that he has a "personal crusade to remind a generation that diverse Cuban dance rhythms are as vital today as ever", yet he has willingly lent his name to, and loudly backed, the US government's campaign against his homeland. The debilitating US economic blockade of the island denied US people the opportunity to hear Cuba's premier musicians — live or recorded (apart from a few dedicated and hard-to-find record labels) — for over 20 years. Yet, if it were not for Cuba's political system Sandoval may never have had the opportunities he has had. Cuba's education system is geared to giving those who show ability the opportunity to pursue their talents. At age 12, Sandoval began learning classical trumpet. He later performed with the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music, his ability recognised by being offered guest artist status with the BBC Symphony and the Leningrad Symphony. Sandoval was a founding member of the Irakere, the flag-bearer of modern Cuban jazz. The blockade prevented Sandoval and Irakere, and their recordings, reaching the US until a brief thaw in 1978 saw them perform in New York to high acclaim. In 1981, Sandoval left Irakere to form his own band and toured the world, earning great fame throughout Europe and Latin America. Throughout, the Cuban state paid the musicians' salaries, arranged venues, and helped provide equipment and instruments. It is not surprising that the blockade, by locking Cuban artists out of tours and record sales in one of the world's most important music scenes, causes frustration and in some cases envy. It also means that Cuba does not have the latest recording technologies or manufacturing plants to make quality CDs. Yet, most of Cuba's top artists resist the temptation — and outright bribery — to renounce Cuba for the lucrative record deals that await them if they defect. Sandoval did not resist. In 1990, he sought and was granted political asylum in the US. Almost immediately he was appointed a professorship at the Florida International University (an almost surreal dedication on his latest single thanks the Disney corporation for the help they have given him since he landed in the US!). He has described Fidel Castro as a man with "no love in his heart or any appreciation of music or art or writing" who uses artistic endeavour in Cuba to his own ends. That this is pure guff is amply demonstrated by the work of Cuba's leading jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the still innovative Irakere, the son masters Sierra Maestra, and salseros Los Van Van, NG La Banda and vocalist Isaac Delgado, all of whom have been denied a wide international audience by the blockade. US jazz greats such as bassist Charlie Haden and, until his death, Dizzy Gillespie regularly played with Cuban artists at festivals in Canada, Europe and sometimes in Cuba itself in recognition of the vitality that is Cuban music. The sad fact is that Arturo Sandoval sold his soul and succumbed to the lure of fame and fortune in a country whose government has waged a 30-year-long economic and political war against his homeland. Yet, as jazz critic Gene Santoro pointed out in an article in the US Nation: "Cuban musicians are guaranteed work. The less well-known are subsidised by the better-off via the Ministry of Culture. And all are treated as an integral part of the culture they chronicle and reflect. The contrast [to the situation in the US] highlights the despicable, disorganised and embarrassing nature of US arts policy."

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