What is it about los Cubanos? Artists like Los Carpinteros craft incredibly sculpted social critiques. Dancers such as Carlos Acosta, the Carreno clan and the Feijoo sisters have stormed the ballet world. And their musicians -- their musicians always rock the house.
The audience in the Herbst Theater was primed from the outset when trumpet master Arturo Sandoval took the spotlight at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. And if there was any disappointment that evening, it was that the show had to end some time.
Backed by a tight-knit quintet that included Ed Calle on sax, Javier Concepcion on keyboards, Armando Gola on bass, Tomasito Cruz on congas and Alexis Arce on drums, Sandoval hit the stage at a blistering pace, dispatching double digit high notes on his trumpet solos with almost irritating ease.
Like many of the Cuban musicians, Sandoval -- whose defection to the US 16 years ago was covered in Andy Garcia's For Love or Country -- is a real charmer. In the rare moments when he's not playing, he does a little fidgety dance as if he can't stand NOT to be making noise. He scats, he plays piano on "La Piquina," and he disarms the crowd with his asides, even as the band and the crew discreetly struggle with the mikes and stage monitors. The fussing goes on intermittently throughout the show, but Sandoval says plainly to the audience, "You understand, we want to sound the best that we can."
A guy in the balcony shouts, "Keep turning it up!" and without missing a beat, Sandoval continues, "And if you have suggestions, please ... let us know."
A sensation even before he founded the legendary Irakere group with Chucho Valdes and Paquito d'Rivera -- Sandoval has said in interviews that he doesn't want to be remembered as a jazz trumpeter, that he wants to be remembered as a man who loves music. And indeed, from classical to pop, Afro-Cuban to bebop, music pours out of this omnivorous artist no matter what instrument he's playing. In fact, there is a smorgasbord of possibilities arrayed at the front of the stage for him to sport with as the mood strikes him -- keyboard, drums, cowbells, mouth harp -- all right there next to his trumpet and flugelhorn.
All the same, it's his trumpet-playing that brands itself on your memory. Maybe it's the punchy bite of his solos, the staccato daggers of sound that sear off the cilia from your cochlea. Or could it be the soft pillows of romance that come out of his flugel, which can morph so effortlessly into comic lines? He can finesse bravura displays that range from dazzling cadenzas to impossibly low brays. He can make the horn laugh, he can make it cry, he can make it play Jascha Heifetz covers, and every whimsical, ridiculous inch of it is vastly entertaining.
Out in the audience, shoulders are shimmying, but everyone is too shy to dance. Sandoval is having none of it, and promises to play just one more tune as an encore if everyone gets up. True to his word, they launch into a hot closer that has the whole floor salsa-ing.
It's seductive and for just a couple of hours it feels like Cuban blood courses through your veins.
The SF Jazz Festival runs through November 12. For tickets and information visit sfjazz.org.