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Bobby Sanabria: West Side Story

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In August 1957, West Side Story opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre. The musical was fashioned after Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and was set on New York's Upper West Side in a neighborhood polarized by Puerto Rican and working-class white families. The show received positive reviews, and four years later the musical was adapted for the screen by director Robert Wise.

Since the curtains went up on West Side Story's original stage production, virtually every major interpretation of the score has been arranged and conducted by non-Latin artists. Johnny Richards's arrangements for Stan Kenton in 1961 may be the sole exception, but even that rendition was processed through Kenton's Hollywood orchestra. Richards, of course, was born in Mexico.

Last November, drummer Bobby Sanabria and the Multiverse Big Band performed a new arrangement of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York. Their performance was recorded and recently released as West Side Story Reimagined (Jazzheads). Though many of the album's tracks are by seemingly non-Latino arrangers, Bobby supervised the feel of the charts, so there's a refreshing and strong Puerto Rican sensibility behind each and every one of the pieces.

As Bobby writes in the liner notes:

West Side Story holds a special place in my heart. I first saw the movie as a young boy when my parents, José and Juanita, took me and my sister, Joanne, to the luxurious Loews Paradise on the Grand Concourse in my hometown, Da' Bronx. At that time, there wasn't anything that acknowledged the contributions we had made, let alone the existence of NYC's Puerto Rican community, other than articles about gangs and crime in relation to us. But somehow as a child, I knew better. Despite the racism my parents had experienced, and subsequently me and my sister, we somehow knew that our existence, our presence in the city had literally transformed it culturally, artistically and, of course, musically...

“It is in this spirit that we present you this re-imagining of West Side Story, celebrating its recent 60th birthday in 2017 and Maestro Leonard Bernstein's 100th in 2018. A re-imaging form the perspective of a jazz musician, a Latin musician and a native Nuyorican son who is proud to say he is from the city that defines aché, hipness and cool—Nu' Yawk. Bravo Maestro Bernstein!"

The music on this two-CD album is authentic and powerfully textured. The blend of Latin themes and percussion and improvised jazz solos convincingly convey the summer heat, the impossible dream of cross-cultural love, and the dangers imposed by gangs to prevent such love from taking hold and flourishing. Best of all, each song is more boldly interpreted than the common versions, transporting them beyond their original statements and transforming them into highly seasoned expressions.

The urban story of Puerto Ricans clashing with working-class whites is brilliantly dramatized by Bobby's orchestra. I've always loved the West Side Story score, but this album is the first that has made complete sense.

My only small quibble is the label's decision to include a handful of spoken intros to songs. Generally, they interfere with the flow of the larger work. Fortunately, each of these intros occupies its own track in iTunes, so they can easily be unchecked to skip over or removed altogether to make the music seamless. 

Congratulations, Bobby, on what can only be called a masterpiece.

And kudos to arrangers Jeremy Fletcher, Niko Siebold, Jeff Lederer, Matt Wong, Danny Rivera, Bobby Sanabria, Nate Sparks, Eugene Marlow, Andrew Neelsey and Takao Heisho.

JazzWax clips: Here's a news clip on Bobby Sanabria and the West Side Story performance...



And here's Prologue...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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