Bobby Sanabria Revamps “West Side Story”

Sanabria

WEST SIDE STORY REIMAGINED / BERNSTEIN: Prologue. Jet Song. America. Gee, Officer Krupke. Tonight. Gym Scene: Blues/Mambo; Cha Cha Cha. Maria. Cool. The Rumble. One Hand, One Heart. Somewhere. Epilogue/Finale / Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band: Kevin Vryan, Saheef Clayton, Max Darche, Andrew Neesley, tp; David Miller, Tim Sessions, Armando Vergara, tb; Chris Washburne, bs-tb; David De Jesus, s-sax/fl/a-sax; Andrew Gould, a-sax/fl; Peter Brainin, t-sax/fl; Yaacov Mayman, t-sax/fl/cl; Danny Rivera, bar-sax; Gabrielle Garo, fl/pic; Ben Sutin, el-vln; Darwin Noguera, pn; Leo Traversa, el-bs; Bobby Sanabria, dm/cowbells/police whistle/samba whistle/voc; Oreste Abrantes, conga/itotele bata dm/voc (Maria only); Takao Heisho, claves/Cuban guiro macho/cencerro/Puerto Rican guacharo; okonkolo batá dm/maracas/shekere/tamb/cuica/ pandeiro/triangle/gong/police siren / Jazzheads JH1231

Kent's_West_Side_StoryIt’s been a long time since I can recall a full-length jazz album version of the music from West Side Story—57 years, in fact, when the great jazz arranger Johnny Richards revamped the Broadway score for Stan Kenton’s orchestra. Those arrangements were so good that Kenton won a Grammy the following year (1962), one which he openly and proudly credited to Richards. In fact, Kenton’s drummer of the time, Jerry McKenzie, said, “I love playing Johnny’s music, and so did Stan. West Side Story was probably the toughest album I ever recorded (source: Wikipedia).”

Here, Bobby Sanabria, who was only four years old when Kenton’s album was released in 1961, takes an entirely different approach to the music. The arrangements, by several different writers—Jeremy Fletcher, Niko Siebold, Jeff Lederer, Matt Wong, Danny Rivers, Nate Sparks, Eugene Marlowe, Andrew Neesley and Takao Heisho—are much more Latin in their rhythmic feel, using a great deal of percussion and plenty of solo work. I think the biggest differences are in the instrumentation and use of harmony. Richards, who arranged the very first jazz-soloist-with-strings album in 1946 with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (an album that the record company hated because it was neither easy listening nor pure jazz…the test pressing were unceremoniously dumped into a garbage can, from which someone, perhaps Dizzy himself, rescued them from oblivion), was always very concerned with interesting harmonic progressions and rich timbral blends. Richards’ West Side Story has a certain Latin feel to it—he was, after all, Mexican (his real name was Juan Manuel Cascales)—but what continually grabs the ear in his arrangements were the very advanced and rich-toned orchestration (this was the period in which Kenton used mellophones in the brass section to give the orchestra a richer sound without the hassle of training French horn players to swing). Although Sanabria does have a few low-range instruments in his band (bass trombone and baritone sax, and they are quite audible in some of the arrangements  such as America), the general sound of his orchestra is towards the kind of swinging Latin-shout approach that the late Perez Prado used to great effect, except with flutes for color. The brass section in particular has the same kind of exuberant shout that Prado’s did; and yes, I absolutely ADORED Perez Prado’s band back in the late ‘50s when I first heard it (Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Patricia, Mambo No. 5, etc.).

And yet there are times when Sanabria’s arrangements give you a little taste of the kind of subtlety that Richards employed, i.e. the latter section of that same arrangement of America where the flutes and clarinets replace the heavy brass textures. These moments are quite wonderful to hear. Moreover, and I cannot stress this enough, Sanabria’s soloists all say something on their instruments. They’re not just wild, out-of-control screamers who fly off the handle and go into pretzel-twist solos; they listen to each other, and in a certain sense improvise on the melodies as much as on the chords. How rare is that in today’s jazz? I can’t even begin to tell you!

In Gee, Officer Krupke (which was my favorite song from the West Side Story score when I first heard it), Sanabria plays it in a loping 6/8 for a while before switching to a Latin-based 4. And oh my Lord, how this band kicks butt! They are one of the most alive-sounding orchestras I’ve heard since the old Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band of the 1970s and ‘80s. They play not only with an unbridled enthusiasm, but take the frequent tempo changes in stride. Shareef Clayton’s trumpet solo with plunger in this number sounded a lot like Cootie Williams. The scoring for Tonight is altogether softer from the very beginning, using the tenor and baritone saxes with bass trombone (and flutes up top) to create a blend not too dissimilar to some of the effects Richards achieved in 1961. Yes, the trumpet section also gets some licks in, but it ends with a soft piano solo before the band swings into the Gym Scene with a loose-limbed swing beat that harks back to the kind of rhythm the Jimmie Lunceford band used—except with far more imaginative scoring.

Interestingly, there are two different scorings for Maria here: the first in the Gym Scene where it is a cha cha, arranged by Nate Sparks, then in the full version of the tune which opens CD 2, arranged by Marlow. The most straightahead swing arrangement on the whole album is Andrew Neesley’s version of Cool, which sounds for all the world like the Akiyoshi band…or like Akiyoshi’s idol, Duke Ellington, back when he had Chuck Conners on bass trombone and Willie “Cat” Anderson screaming in the altissimo range on trumpet. And throughout it all, Sanabria’s drumming is both propulsive and flexible, sounding at times like Prado’s drummer, Tito Puente, or Buddy Rich, as the mood dictates. His extended solo on The Rumble – Rumba sounds the most like Puente. Fletcher’s arrangement of Somewhere is the most rhythmically complex chart on the entire album, but it also swings (and features an electric violin solo by Ben Sutin that almost sounds like Jean-Luc Ponty.

My only complaint about the album was its being split up onto 2 CDs. Since the whole thing, with spoken introductions, runs 79:38, it could easily have fit onto one disc. But the proceeds from this album are being donated to Puerto Rican hurricane relief, so the $25 asking price for the physical CDs (the download-only version runs $10) is not too bad. You can order the album at Kickstarter by clicking here. Believe me, it’s well worth the investment. Lenny Bernstein would have really liked this album, I think, despite the fact that he himself kept trying to turn the musical in a full-fledged opera with legitimate orchestral scoring!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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