By Don Heckman
The wide stage at Catalina Bar & Grill was overflowing Friday night with a big jazz band featuring some of the Southland’s finest players. But the focus of the performance — repeated on Saturday night — was clearly centered on the band’s leader – the incomparable Arturo Sandoval.
The first set had actually opened with a small ensemble backing a colorful display of Sandoval’s brilliantly eclectic musical skills. In no more than 15 or 20 minutes, he delved through a full collection of his far-ranging abilities.
The trumpet came first, with Sandoval playing with stunning technical virtuosity, scouring the full instrument from its airy bottom to its highest perimeters. Up next – his piano playing, delivered with an easy confidence and articulate musicality. Followed by his rhythmically spicy work on the timbales. And he topped it off with an astonishing exhibition of scat singing. Employing all sorts of instrumental techniques, from flutter tonguing to note buzzing, adding low notes with the overtone qualities of Tuvan throat singing, as well as some humorous falsetto. And doing it all with the musical inventiveness of the fine improviser he is.
But that was just the beginning. Sandoval had noted at the start of the set that the performance would be a tribute to the man who was both his inspiration and his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie. And he proceeded to fulfill that promise with a big band set embracing Gillespie’s tunes as well as his own originals honoring the iconic bebop master.
Over the course of his big band’s program, Sandoval continued to switch from trumpet and flugelhorn to piano, percussion and – on “Every Day I Think Of You,” an original tribute to Gillespie – to sing with surprisingly fine balladry.
Other highlights included a virtuosic – and sometimes humorous – duet with the brilliant trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, an unusual arrangement of Gillespie’s classic line, “Bebop,” and equally compelling versions of Gillespie’s “And Then She Stopped” and “Woody’n’You.”
Add to that “The Man I Love,” featuring a beautifully played saxophone section soli, Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring” and another Sandoval original, “Swinging’.” All of it was performed with authoritative rhythmic drive by the Sandoval big band. Overflowing with first call players, the soloists featured, among others, Bergeron, trombonist Andy Martin, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, saxophonist/arranger Dan Higgins and pianist Mahesh Balasooriya. And we can’t overlook the Saturday night presence of bongo-playing actor Andy Garcia, who portrayed Sandoval in the biographic film For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story.
Call it a memorable collection of big band jazz. Made all the better by the charisma of Sandoval. As humorous and witty as he is musical, it was his presence that transformed an evening of prime big band music into an evening to remember.
Photos by Bonnie Perkinson.