Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You), set for release on May 8, 2012, on Concord Jazz, is Sandoval’s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, the mentor and friend who literally rescued him and his family from an oppressive existence and gave them a chance at an entirely new and better life. The album is a collection of ten classics from Gillespie’s massive body of work, each framed in big-band arrangements that throw the spotlight squarely on the elements of bebop that underscore so much of the iconic trumpeter’s work and set the tone for the music of his era.
Backing Sandoval in the set is a crew of top-shelf jazz artists: vibraphonist Gary Burton, saxophonist Bob Mintzer, organist Joey DeFrancesco, clarinetist Eddie Daniels, saxophonist/clarinetist Ed Calle, drummer/producer Gregg Field and several others. Also along for the ride are a couple of unlikely but well-placed surprises – actors Andy Garcia on percussion and Joe Pesci on vocals. The resulting set is, as Field puts it, Sandoval’s “love letter to an old friend.”
“I have been, and always will be, so grateful to Dizzy,” says Sandoval. “He was such an important figure to me, not just in my career but in my life. I wanted to make a record of his songs that was as good as it could be, using all the state-of-the art recording tools of the modern day. When he originally recorded all of these tunes – and I’m talking about the 1940s – musicians and engineers and producers didn’t have all of the resources and technology that we have today. But aside from the technology, I’m very happy about the arrangements. These are wonderful interpretations of some of Dizzy’s greatest songs.”
“I wanted to make an Arturo Sandoval album that was separate from all the other albums he has made,” says Field. “I wanted to bring in as many jazz stars as possible to help Arturo celebrate Dizzy. This has been a very emotional project for him. It’s a record that Arturo has wanted to make ever since he’s known Dizzy, and it’s finally come to fruition.”
The album is every bit the love letter that Field suggests – a work that’s loaded with personal sentiment and historical significance. Born in Cuba in 1949, Sandoval came of age during the height of Fidel Castro’s Communist regime. He began playing the trumpet as a teenager. By age 16, he had earned a place in Cuba’s all-star national band, and was already completely immersed in jazz. His direct influences included Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and above all, Dizzy Gillespie.
Sandoval was still relatively young and unknown – just 27 years old, with only two recordings on his resume – when he met Gillespie for the first time in 1977. When Gillespie arrived in Cuba on a boat to play a gig in Havana, Sandoval was waiting at the pier with an offer to show him around and introduce him to the rumba music that was popular in the black neighborhoods at the time. Only later in the evening, when Sandoval took the stage in one of the neighborhood clubs, did Gillespie realize that he was in the presence of not just a fan but a brilliant young talent. The encounter marked the beginning of a friendship that lasted for more than two decades.
In the years that followed, Sandoval assembled his own band and toured worldwide, playing a blend of jazz and Afro-Cuban music and crafting a long string of brilliant recordings along the way. In addition to his specialty in Afro-Cuban styles, he also made his mark as a classical musician as well as a guest player on recordings by artists representing a broad spectrum of styles: Johnny Mathis, Woody Herman, Gloria Estefan, Frank Sinatra, Herbie Hancock, Celine Dion, Stan Getz and many others.
And yet, for all of his worldwide success, Sandoval continued to bump up against the political restrictions of his Communist homeland. In 1990, in a clandestine maneuver arranged by the U.S. State Department during a tour with Gillespie, he spirited his wife and children out of Cuba and defected to the United States. He became a naturalized citizen in 1999.
Despite this tumultuous backdrop, Sandoval’s creativity flourished throughout the ‘90s and beyond. He has recorded no less than 30 albums over the past two decades, and he maintains an ambitious schedule of touring and recording – not just in the context of Latin jazz, but also with artists within and outside of the jazz mainstream.
Along the way, though, he lost a life-long friend and mentor with Dizzy’s passing in the early days of 1993. But make no mistake: Gillespie and his profound legacy are still very much alive in the richly arranged and finely textured tracks of Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You).
The first sound you hear on this record is Gillespie’s voice, introducing a young Arturo Sandoval as “one of the young grand masters of the trumpet” during a live performance in the late ‘80s. What follows is a sly rendition of “Bebop,” arranged by 2012 Grammy winner Gordon Goodwin, whom Field calls “the most talented figure in contemporary big band writing.”
Goodwin is also responsible for the sultry arrangement of “Salt Peanuts!,” which features Bob Mintzer on tenor sax, Gary Burton on vibes, and a playful vocal cameo by veteran actor and perennial goodfella Joe Pesci. “This is such a perfect example of Gordon’s genius,” says Field, “of his ability to take something that is so familiar to jazz musicians and jazz fans and completely rework it.”
Dizzy’s “Birks Works” is rechristened here with the tag “a la Mancini,” thanks to the contributions of saxophonist Plas Johnson, who recorded Henry Mancini’s iconic Pink Panther theme 50 years ago. Shelly Berg’s arrangement also includes flute, trumpet, tenor sax and strings – all of which further evoke the Mancini sensibility.
“Con Alma,” arranged by Nan Schwartz, includes “a string arrangement that’s a beautiful thing,” says Sandoval. “This tune has been recorded many times, but I don’t think it’s been recorded quite this way before. The classical string quartet gives the song such a fine, elegant sound.”
The exotic and impassioned “Tin Tin Deo” features lead vocals by vocalist Manolo Gimenez, supported by Mintzer on tenor sax and Wally Minko on piano and Joey DeFrancesco on organ – all carefully balanced in an arrangement by Dan Higgins. “I love the sound of an organ mixed in with a big band,” says Field. “Dizzy loved trying different configurations, oftentimes in ways that weren’t necessarily conventional. The idea of having a full-on gypsy singer doing a Cuban song with an American big band is a jazz mashup at its best.”
“A Night in Tunisia,” the Gillespie classic originally co-authored by Frank Paparelli, is completely reworked here by arranger Wally Minko, who sets the tune in the unlikely three-four time and allows ample room for trombonist Bob McChesney.
The album closes with an eleventh track, “Every Day I Think of You” a poignant, string-intensive ballad by Sandoval that serves as the coda to this heartfelt tribute recording. Propelled by Sandoval’s stirring vocals, the track veers completely away from the big band vibe that precedes it, opting instead for something much more intimate, understated and personal. “I really mean every word of that song,” says Sandoval. “Dizzy encouraged me so much. He opened so many doors for me and showed me so many opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.”
At the heart of Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You) is the bebop groove that Gillespie spent a lifetime exploring and refining, says Sandoval. “When it comes to bebop, you either know it or you don’t,” he says. “There’s no halfway. If you’re going to be a good bebop player, you really need to be a hell of a musician with a lot of skill and a great education and a great command of your instrument. This is what Dizzy was all about. He wasn’t just a trumpet player. He was an innovator and a creator. That sense of innovation and creativity that he brought to every note he played is what inspires this recording and everyone who plays on it. In that sense, he’s still very much with all of us. I do think of Dizzy every day.”