Jazz With an Accent: New CDs From Arturo Sandoval and Leni Stern

 By Fernando Gonzalez

There might be a crisis in the business of music, but judging by recent releases, not on the making of music. There is a lot to catch up with. Here are two worthy new records.

Arturo Sandoval

Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You) (Concord)

Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You), is trumpeter Arturo Sandoval’stribute to Dizzy Gillespie, his mentor and friend and a key player in his defection from Cuba in 1990.

The disc opens with Gillespie introducing Sandoval as “one of the young masters of the trumpet,” at a show in the 1980s, and the announcement flows smoothly into a smartly arranged version of “Be Bop” that sets the tone. The repertoire is made of Dizzy’s classics and considering Sandoval’s track record it might have been fair to expect a disc full of fireworks and loud, bright and shiny moments. Hard core Sandoval fans will not be disappointed — but Dear Diz is more than that. The music is center stage here, reframed in thoughtful arrangements for big band, such as those by Gordon Goodwin (“Be Bop,” “Salt Peanuts”), pianist Shelly Berg  (“Birk’s Works” evoking Henry Mancini’s style) and Wally Minko (“A Night in Tunisia”) but also Nan Schwartz’s “Con Alma,” which becomes here an elegy for string quartet and trumpet.

Moreover, Sandoval is surrounded by an all-star cast that includes vibist Gary Burton, saxophonists Bob Mintzer and Ed Calle, and organist Joey De Francesco. Actor and music-fan-turned-player-and-producer Andy Garcia, a friend of Sandoval who also starred on 2001’s HBO biopic, For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story, is credited on percussion.

The disc closes with a touching bookend: Sandoval singing and playing his ballad “Every Day I Think of You,” an unabashed love letter to Gillespie.

More often than not, tributes are barely more than marketing ploys covering for a lack of ideas. Well thought out and heartfelt, Dear Diz is a worthy exception.

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Leni Stern

Sabani (Leni Stern Recordings)

Guitarist Leni Stern has followed a circuitous path to Mali – beginning in Munich,  with stops in New York, Boston, the Peruvian rainforest and Benin, where she helped found a music school. Her recent recordings ( Africa, 2007; Alu Maye; 2007; and Sa Belle Belle Ba, 2010) not only have offered a very satisfying, beautifully crafted global musical fusion, but also have served to document her immersion in African culture. This is not an artist on a cultural safari. In those recordings, she draws much from the local music and musicians — but also allows herself to be changed by them.

Perhaps it’s only natural then than Sabani, her most recent project, features Stern playing the n’goni, a West African lute-like instrument referred by some as an ancestor of the banjo, in a stripped-down trio setting. (Sabani means three in the Bambara language spoken in Mali.)

Recorded at Malian pop superstar Salif Keita’s Mouffou Studios in Bamako, Sabani features Stern on electric and acoustic guitars, n’goni and vocals, along with two standout players from Keita’s band, Haruna Samake on string instruments, and Mamadou “Prince” Kone, percussion.

The patterns played by the plucked string instruments – there are several combinations throughout the recording – create a lattice effect that, floating over a subtle but definite groove, feels at once delicate and sturdy, ethereal and swinging, even urgent on its own terms (check “Sorcerer,” “I Was Born,” or “The Cat Stole The Moon”).

In other instances, such as “Like A Thief,” the music takes on an unexpectedly elegiac tone – a song Stern says was inspired by flamenco singer Diego El Cigala.

Stern’s singing (all in English) is an acquired taste, but even at its artless moments, it works well in context. It sounds real. And if it also sounds a bit rough-edged or inelegant (especially when compared to that of the Malian singers on the recording) so be it. It’s part of this album’s beauty.

Sabani sounds like what happens in a true encounter between people from different worlds who can both play and listen.


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To read more posts from Fernando Gonzalez and his “Jazz With An Accent” column, click HERE.


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