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Trumpeter Sandoval celebrates music without borders

Arturo Sandoval has won 10 Grammy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Arturo Sandoval has won 10 Grammy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

His story amounts to an American triumph. But there’s a curious wrinkle in the journey of Arturo Sandoval, the celebrated trumpeter and bandleader who has been a boisterous presence on the international music scene, particularly since defecting from Cuba and moving to the United States in 1990.

Sandoval’s application for citizenship was initially rejected because he’d been a member of the Communist Party back home, before renouncing his Cuban citizenship while on tour in Europe with Dizzy Gillespie.

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But if he was the sort to keep score, Sandoval now has the ultimate answer to those Immigration and Naturalization Service employees who once denied him. Last year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in a class that also included former president Bill Clinton. The music business has also lined up to decorate him with honors; he’s won 10 Grammy Awards, to date.

As the 25th anniversary of his dramatic life change approaches, Sandoval sounds like a man who is content to enjoy his success and take things a little slower.

Though he first achieved fame with the Cuban group Irakere in the 1970s, he’s said in the past that the Cuban government stifled his progress, both commercially and artistically. For a while after his defection, he worked at a pace that may have indicated a desire to make up for lost time.

“That happened for a while but not anymore,” he says, speaking on the phone while spending a few days off in Las Vegas, “Now I love to relax more, and I enjoy the moment and I play in the way I should, not even thinking about what many hundreds of opportunities I missed in the past. That’s history already. I can not think all the time about what could have happened. It’s better to live in the moment.”

Sandoval is most often associated with Afro-Cuban jazz, though he’s also written classical pieces and scored several films. He’s become a serious piano student since moving to the States — he says the Cuban government wouldn’t issue him a piano because, as a trumpet player, he “didn’t need it” — and onstage will often play piano, flugelhorn, and percussion in addition to the trumpet.

‘Whatever sounds good, I love it. I enjoy playing or composing or orchestrating any kind of good music.’

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“A lot of times when he records stuff, he’ll play all the trumpet parts; he’ll play trombone, French horn, piano, percussion,” says longtime friend and current manager Frank Vardaros. An accomplished trumpeter himself, Vardaros was a student at Berklee College of Music when he first met Sandoval, who was in town for a gig. “It’s crazy,” he continues. “It’s like he’s a mad scientist in there.”

The crowd of musicians who protest the term “jazz,” or insist their music is without genre, could field an All-Star big band, many times over. But though Sandoval’s lively, percussion-heavy sound frequently is informed by the Latin elements most famously introduced to jazz by his mentor Gillespie, the trumpeter is keen to avoid labels.

“I really don’t like when the people try to put a sticker on my forehead that says ‘Latin jazz’ or something like that — I really hate that so much, that’s not fair,” he says, directing an expletive at those who would do so. “For me, it’s kind of an act of discrimination: There’s a Latino guy, OK, put a Latin jazz sign in front. Whatever sounds good, I love it. I enjoy playing or composing or orchestrating any kind of good music.”

Indeed, his 2003 album “Trumpet Evolution” sketches out a history of the instrument in jazz, from the music’s early days up through the work of Wynton Marsalis. The technically dexterous Sandoval has recorded album-length tributes to Gillespie and Clifford Brown, and has a collection of works by the Mexican songwriter Armando Manzanero ready to go later this year.

But whether playing with a big band or his sextet — he’ll be with the latter ensemble on Sunday, when he plays the second day of the Boston Globe/WGBH Summer Arts Weekend at Copley Square — Sandoval is probably best known in the live context, where his fluency with the higher ranges of his instrument has been known to elicit squeals in the cheap seats.

“That is the most important thing for me,” he says of a close connection with a lively audience. “If we establish that kind of communication, that’s my best gift from God. I feel like the happiest person. We are very lucky. I can’t lie to you and say that happens every night, but we experience that feeling very often.”

Sandoval’s summer itinerary also includes a six-day span of two shows a night at the Blue Note in New York, and one-off appearances in Singapore, Taipei, and Macau. (He returns to Boston to play Scullers Jazz Club in November.) But though he exerts a global influence, he runs at a less frenetic pace than he once did.

“I was trying to play millions of notes per minute, things I couldn’t play before,” he says of his first years in America. “I wanted to prove everything. I’m 65 years old now. I don’t think I have anything to prove.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.
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