In the nearly 30 years since he slipped into the U.S. embassy in Rome seeking asylum in the United States, Cuban jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval has been making up for lost time.
After a life constrained by politics, economics and geography on the island of his birth, Sandoval has become an elder statesman of American jazz. Forty albums, a biopic starring Andy Garcia, Grammy Awards, an Emmy, American citizenship and a Presidential Medal of Freedom have filled the years.
Now touring from his home base in Los Angeles, including a JazzSLC show at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Capitol Theatre, 68-year-old Sandoval is reflective about the two halves of his career. There are fewer self-imposed deadlines now, more space to simply enjoy the process.
“The music is a huge motivation, still,” he says. “I feel extremely blessed. To be able to play for others all over the world is such a privilege.”
It wasn’t always the case. Born in 1949 in a town outside Havana, Sandoval started playing with street musicians as a 12-year-old boy. He dabbled in percussion and piano, but his love for the trumpet took over. Along with others in Cuba’s fledgling jazz community, he helped establish the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna in 1967. Orquesta members including Sandoval eventually founded the jazz-rock group Irakere.
A not-so-chance meeting in 1977 with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie — Sandoval offered to drive the virtuoso around town — launched a mentorship that shaped both his bebop and Afro-Cuban sound and his life. Sandoval discovered the percussive innovations of bebop when he was 13 after listening to a Charlie Parker-Gillespie collaboration. But after they met, Gillespie provided a rigorous “listening” list for his protégé. Sandoval considers bebop one of the most important movements in jazz history.
“I’m still in love with that kind of music,” Sandoval says. “It’s not easy. It’s very difficult. You need to think very fast. The chord changes very quickly. It takes a lot of skill.”
It was while on a tour in 1990 with the United Nations Orchestra at Gillespie’s invitation that Sandoval, his wife and teenage son were able to defect. At the time, he was considered Cuba’s Louis Armstrong, but Sandoval felt stifled, his performances limited by the whims of Cuba’s communist government. Once he settled in America, Sandoval set out to break those bounds, playing with famous and obscure musicians alike and recording at a brisk pace, sometimes releasing multiple albums a year.
Known for bebop as well as Latin rhythms, Sandoval says his JazzSLC audience can expect to hear selections from that broad discography, which includes “Funky Cha-Cha,” “La Virgen de la Macarena,” “A Mis Abuelos” and “A Night in Tunisia.” He’s touring with his sextet.
“The trumpet can whisper very soft and then transform into the louder and stronger instrument in the orchestra,” he says. “The instrument gives you all kinds of possibility to express yourself, without limitation.”
Three decades after leaving Cuba, Sandoval still marvels at his freedom — both physical and musical. “It’s so rewarding to get an audience in front of you and they react to the music. It’s unlike anything else,” he says.
Arturo Sandoval Sextet
When • Saturday, Jan. 6, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $32.50, $10 for students with ID; https://artsaltlake.org/production/arturo-sandoval-sextet/