Arturo Sandoval @ MusicFest Café at Steel Stacks

BETHLEHEM, PA—He came out of Cuba in 1990, defecting to the United States while touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s band. Back in Havana, he had to play in state-sponsored bands where the Castro regime dictated his musical direction. Arturo Sandoval’s life reads like a Hollywood movie, and in 2000 it was. For Love Or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story with Andy Garcia playing the legendary trumpeter. He’s recorded 44 albums in 35 years and has furthered Dizzy’s pioneering Afro-Cuban Jazz sound more than anyone else.

Rolling into the beautiful new MusicFest Café on the site of the old Bethlehem Steel Works with the five blast furnaces still standing behind the bandstand (changing colors, no less!), Sandoval, 61, hit those high bleeting, blasting trills at the top of his register like a clarion call for the people to erupt. And they did. During the course of a viscerally thrilling and almost overly-loud set, he not only blew his brains out on his trumpet but played keyboards and that extra-spicy brand of percussion that makes Cuban music positively percolate with snap, crackle and pop.

The band had a raging saxman, wild drummer, the kind of bassist who played the electric like Stanley Clarke, plunking out runs like a lead guitarist yet still holding the bottom firmly in place, and a combo piano player/synthman who added color and drama and a few solos of his own that brought down the house.

Pretty heady stuff to be listening to while munching on a Cuban Panini and slurping down Cuban rum! All I needed was a fine Cuban cigar (but they’re still illegal).

As the sun set on the steel stacks of this beautiful venue, the band made sure for its first number to get a rise out of the excited patrons, thus an uninhibited display of power that borrowed from the avant-garde but morphed into a salsa with vocals halfway through. Then came a bebop as filtered through Latin jazz deity Machito. Arturo walked through the crowded tables blowing his horn in people’s faces and swiveling his hips like Elvis.

Up next was a pure unadulterated funk, again, as filtered this time through an Eddie Palmieri blender. It was funk all right, only with added layers of percussion, both Sandoval and the drummer going crazy. Exhilarating!

Jerome Kern’s 1933 “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” ballad got a lazy sensual reading that let everybody catch their breath. Sandoval’s solo was incredible in that he explored his trumpet’s lower range to the point where he made his horn sound more like a damn bassoon than a trumpet. Who knew a trumpet even had the capacity to sound like that?

The night ended with a crazy-sick, carnivalesque, 15-minute free-for-all of Dizzy’s “A Night In Tunesia” with solos for all.

And to think if this progressive-minded musician hadn’t had the guts to defect, he’d still be in the foothills of Cuba playing “Malaguena.”