When told that his Festival Miami concert on Saturday night is billed as “Jazz, Tango, Bebop, and More,” Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, speaking from his home in Los Angeles, responds with mock horror.
“Really? Oh well, OK,” he says with a chuckle. “Frankly, I don’t know what we’re going to play. In jazz music, the name of the tune or the melody is secondary. The most important thing is what you do with it.”
In truth, the list for Sandoval could have included classical music, the Great American Songbook, Cuban dance music or his latest project, the songs of Mexican composer Armando Manzanero.
“Music is my passion, is my love, my profession,” says Sandoval. “It’s so many things for me, and music is only one. I don’t care who wrote it, when or where. If I like it, I like to learn it and play it. I love music.”
And music, clearly, has loved him back.
Sandoval, who turns 64 on Nov. 6, has not only won Grammys, Latin Grammys and an Emmy, but had his life turned into a movie. And next month, Sandoval, who defected in 1990 while on tour with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor bestowed upon those who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
“Frankly, I didn’t know exactly what the prize meant,” he says, recalling the out-of-the blue phone call in August. “So when I did some research I was like ‘Oh, My Lord. This is unbelievable.’ And to think I’m only the fourth jazz musician to receive that honor [after Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald]. It is a great honor, but it’s also a great responsibility to properly represent those values.”
If recent projects are any indication, Sandoval is an artist always looking for challenges and meeting them with great success.
In his lush ballad album A Time for Love, he drew from the Great American Songbook but also the classical repertoire and contemporary tango. It won a Latin Grammy. In the moving Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You), which won both a Grammy and a Latin Grammy, he paid tribute to his hero, mentor and friend, revisiting Gillespie’s contributions to jazz with both, bebop and Afro-Cuban jazz.
And last year, Sandoval turned his attention to tango with Tango Como Yo Te Siento, a project recorded partly in Argentina for which he called on several top Argentine players. It won a Latin Grammy.
“My father … was a car mechanic and didn’t pay much attention to music — except tango. He knew the melodies, the lyrics, the great singers. He was a huge fan, and I never forgot about it. In a way, this was a tribute post-mortem to my dad. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t do it while he was alive because for sure he would have loved it.”
And now Sandoval, who in performance has been known not only to dazzle with his trumpet but to sit at the piano, play timbales and sing, has turned his full attention not just to another genre but to singing.
His next album is a tribute to Mexican composer Armando Manzanero. It’s called Eternally Manzanero.
“It’s the very first time I sing the whole record,” he says. “I’ve sung in my records before, but I never trusted my voice at all. Now, if I sing softly, a media voz, maybe I can get away with it. I’ve gotten a good response to the tracks I sung, so I said ‘Let’s try it.’ I chose 12 of the most important pieces Armando wrote.”
Manzanero was “enthusiastic” about the record, says Sandoval, and sings on three of the songs.
Sandoval lived in Miami for 20 years before moving to Los Angeles four years ago. He says he moved “for many reasons, but mainly because I want to get busier as a movie composer. If you want to do that, this is the place where you have to live.”
Living in Miami was “fun,” he says, but “unfortunately I didn’t have much to do there. I was teaching at FIU for almost nine years, and that was good, but in terms of my career, I didn’t work much. The way for me to survive was traveling a lot.”
He also had a bittersweet experience opening a jazz club on Miami Beach, at the Deauville Beach Resort in 2006. The place, elegantly appointed, brought to South Florida important jazz names, many of them for the first time, but it closed after two years.
“I don’t regret it because I did it with a lot of passion and love for the music,” Sandoval says. “In a certain way, it was my contribution to the music scene in the city. But I didn’t feel it was appreciated the way it should’ve been. It was very difficult for me, but you move on. Life goes on.”