|In his main claim to fame, Arturo Sandoval can pin your ears back.|
But what the Cuban native offered for Indy Jazz Fest at Schrott Center for the Arts Thursday evening needs to be put in context. It may not be dismissive to label it a kind of jazz vaudeville. There was comedy, comic banter, a serious speech, and head-spinning stylistic variety. And you never had to wait long for the music to change course.
The showmanship was pervasive, maybe a little too insistent. Musically, it was summed up early by the whole band in a whirlwind tour through "Cherokee," although the "head" may have been one of a wealth of its contrafacts (tunes built on the same chord progression). Later, the local favorite "(Back Home in) Indiana" was briefly represented by its best-known contrafact, "Donna Lee."
There was no glitz in his costuming, but it was a show with a kind of Las Vegas vibe. Part of it stems from the variety within the music itself, as a musician known mainly for his trumpet prowess also exhibited his piano chops, turned to conspicuous accompaniment outings on synthesizer and timbales, and offered two types of vocals — as a romantic balladeer ("When I Fall in Love") and a scat singer with the virtuosity of Clark Terry's "Mumbles" persona.
He was correct to tease the pre-show feature — the awarding of Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame memberships to trumpeter Virgil Jones (posthumous), photographer Mark Sheldon, and guitarist/club manager Frank Steans — for excessive length. "They told us to come on at 7:50," Sandoval said, before turning to the band and collecting a consensus that they had not taken the stage until 8:10. From now on, this worthy celebration under the auspices of the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation needs to have its talking diplomatically trimmed.
Yet Sandoval himself went on too long at one point with a paean to American freedom that became a lecture. His escape from Castro's Cuba to eminence in the United States was capped by his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013), a distinct honor that has been generously distributed for more than a half-century. It's a justifiable source of pride, but the bandleader used it as an excuse to urge greater patriotism upon us.
I can only hit some of the identifiable musical highlights here. The adept band tended to puree everything, but at least Sandoval didn't allow any of the sidemen to be overshadowed. Near the end, percussionist Tiki Pasillas was given a chance to shine during "Besame Mucho" with intricate maracas patterns and in a rattling solo turn on timbales. Pianist Max Haymer had several hard-digging, well-defined solos. Tenor saxophonist Mike Tucker held his own as Sandoval's front-line partner. I unfortunately missed the name of the first-class guitarist, who took an eloquent solo after Sandoval evoked the muted Miles Davis version of "My Funny Valentine." Drummer Johnny Friday was indefatigable at full force in the tradition of Jack DeJohnette. Bassist John Belzaguy got the least amount of solo display, but his solid support never faded into the background.
Though famed for his blistering facility and penetrating tone in all registers, Sandoval may have a love-hate relationship with the trumpet. That might explain his readiness to turn to other ways of making music. In one of his remarks to the Schrott audience, he looked askance at his horn on its stand. After noting that he'd been playing the instrument for six decades, he added: "Try it for six minutes, and you're going to hate it as much as I do." OK, he was kidding, but still...