Bobby Sanabria Brings His Brilliant, Electrifying Reinvention of the West Side Story Score to Harlem This Weekend
Latin jazz drum sage Bobby Sanabria’s mission to tackle Leonard Bernstein’s iconic West Side Story score is ambitious, and a little hubristic. And it’s been done before: The Oscar Peterson Trio, the Stan Kenton Big Band, Dave Brubeck (obviously), Dave Liebman and Dave Grusin have all recorded various sections of the most radical Broadway score prior to Fela, with results from the sublime to….you get the picture. Sanabria and his Multiverse Big Band debuted their West Side Story Reimagined at Lincoln Center last month (sadly, this blog was in Brooklyn that night). Good news for anyone who missed that show: the band are reprising it at the amphitheatre in Marcus Garvey Park this Friday, Sept 14 at 7 PM. If you want a seat, you need to get there early.
As you would expect, the new double album – streaming at Spotify – adds plenty of welcome texture, sonic color and emphatic groove to Bernstein’s orchestration. Compared to previous jazz interpretations, what’s new about it is how heavy it is. The original is a lithe ballet score livened even further by Bernstein’s puckish wit. This version is gritty and in your face.
Sanabria is a connoisseur of just about every rhythm from throughout the Afro-Latin diaspora and beyond, and locks in on how eclectically inspired Bernstein was by all sorts of different rhythms from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and beyond. Yet Sanabria is also very highly attuned to the Stravinskian severity that makes such a stark contrast with the score’s lyricism, particularly as far as the ballads are concerned. Maybe it’s the focus on how much of a clave underscores so much of the music here, with charts by a grand total of nine separate arrangers, Sanabria included. Or maybe it’s just as much of a focus on the storyline’s stark relevance to current-day anti-immigrant paranoia.
This is not a solo-centric album: brief, punchy features for members of the ensemble go on for maybe eight bars at the most, with as many deft handoffs as momentary peaks amidst what Sanabria has very aptly described as a pervasive unease. Since the days of Tammany Hall, the ruling classes have pursued a relentless divide-and-conquer policy among New York’s innumerable ethnic groups, and the 1950s were no exception. In this hands of this mighty band, Bernstein’s keen perceptions are amplified even further.
Much as the new charts put the spotlight on the group’s amazingly versatile percussion section – alongside Sanabria, there’s Takao Heisho, Oreste Abrantes on congas and Matthew Gonzalez on bongós and cencerro – they hew closely to the original score. The deviations can be funny, but they have an edge. A Yoruba chant and a sardonically blithe dixieland interlude appear amid noir urban bustle, toweringly uneasy flares and noir urban bustle. Even the ballads – not all of which are included here – are especially electric. The band that rises to the challenge and succeeds epically here also includes Darwin Noguera on piano; Leo Traversa on bass; trumpeters Kevin Bryan, Shareef Clayton, Max Darché and Andrew Neesley; saxophonists David Dejesus, Andrew Gould, Peter Brainin, Jeff Lederer and Danny Rivera; trombonists Dave Miller, Tim Sessions, Armando Vergara and Chris Washburne; flutist Gabrielle Garo and violnist Ben Sutin.