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music: The Fruit of Communism

Sandoval, the son of an auto mechanic, was a prime product of the system. Born in 1949, he started playing at 12, enrolled in the National School for the Arts at 15, and studied with a Russian classical trumpeter. In the early '70s, with saxophone player Paquito D'Rivera and pianist Chuchu Valdez, he founded the breakthrough big band Irakere.

Irakere's blend of traditional dance rhythms, jazz-rock attitude and classical elements became the first authentically Cuban "Afro-Cuban" band after Castro's revolution. Its phenomenal success served as the launching pad for the defections of stars D'Rivera and later Sandoval. (The band continues to operate as an all-star Cuban ensemble under Valdez's leadership.)

Sandoval's high-profile defection, in the midst of a 1990 European tour with his family already out of Cuba, captured the public imagination enough to be made into an HBO movie starring Andy Garcia. Since then, he has played with the Boston Pops, Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion and Patty LaBelle, among others. His recordings have been nominated for 12 Grammys (he won three), and he has become the modern model of the celebrity musician.

It's a role very much in the footsteps of mentor Dizzy Gillespie, who met Sandoval on an impromptu tour of the Caribbean in 1977. Like Gillespie, Sandoval is a showman with an ebullient personality who has been criticized for using his great technical mastery to achieve crowd-pleasing effects rather than make important musical statements.

While Sandoval has released some very good recordings, he is much better experienced live than on CD. Like a stage actor on television, the CD delivery overwhelms the medium. Live, his outsized energy and his flamboyant techniques are engaging and impressive.

He needs a big venue. The Brown's Island stage should be just right.

— Peter McElhinney

Arturo Sandoval plays during the Big Gig's Latin celebration Saturday, July 20, at 1 p.m. with Huey Dunbar, Timbason, Inner Vision, Latin Ballet of Virginia with Martires del Compas and KASWA. The concert is free at Brown's Island.

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