Bernstein was far more than just a classical conductor. He wrote orchestral pieces—three symphonies—and movie scores and works based on some of my favorite writers: the poet W.H. Auden, the philosopher Voltaire, and Plato. He wrote Fanfare I for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
But if there is any one thing that stands out, it must be his music for West Side Story. That musical bought together the perfect storm of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer Jerome Robbins, to create what may be the greatest work of American musical theatre. If West Side Story were all that Bernstein ever composed, it would be enough.
In a celebration of the maestro’s centennial and in honor of the Latino experience in New York, specifically Brooklyn and the Bronx, maestro Bobby Sanabria has reviewed and renewed Bernstein’s great work and has released West Side Story Reimagined on Randy Klein's Jazzheads label.
“Rhythm was such an important part of the work for my father,” said Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein. “I am so excited for the work that Bobby has done here. My father would be so happy.”
Watching the musical, one is caught up with the lyrics and the dancing. West Side Story Reimagined, however, presents just the music in all its richness and power, humor and heartbreak. With the reimagined music and rhythms from Puerto Rico and the Afro-Cuban tradition and beyond, West Side Story becomes a cultural and musical celebration in West Side Story Reimagined.
And when the Sharks and the Jets fight it out, you feel it.
Not only has Bobby Sanabria enlisted his fabulous Multiverse Big Band, he has engaged brilliant arrangers like Jeremy Fletcher, Niko Siebold, Jeff Lederer, Matt Wong, Danny Rivera, Nate Sparks, Andrew Neesley, Takao Heisho, and the great Eugene Marlow.
Each arranger gives their specific piece their unique treatment and reimagination and the results are stunning. Marlow’s arrangement of Maria is a personal favorite. But with all those brilliant arrangements is the foundation of those amazing rhythms as Bobby reimagines Bernstein’s story of life and love amidst bigotry and racism and fear.
But love of culture, love of the city itself, finds a way to combat the fear and anger with humor and dignity. And there is no greater dignity than that which resides inside Bobby Sanabria.
The prologue is the powerful introduction to the clave rhythm that plays such a huge part in Latin music. The oscillating rhythms define the struggle between the gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. But before the prologue, and indeed before several of the songs, is an introduction from Bobby from behind the drum kit that calls for responses from the audience at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in New York City. It is a powerful insertion of himself and all his experiences into the setting of the West Side.
Jet Song is the encounter between cool bebop Jazz of the Jets and the aggressive Bomba xicá rhythm of the Sharks. It is a brilliant, evocative piece.
America arranger Jeff Lederer said, “Our definitions of what America is have never been more challenged and the relevance of this song have never been in sharper focus.” To that end, Lederer and Bobby insert various national anthems alongside the Venezuelan joropo rhythm.
Gee, Officer Krupke is one of the most intriguing studies in rhythm. Bobby incorporates so many rhythms from so many places and so many styles that this new view of the Polish-American police officer takes on a gentler, more appreciative aspect.
Tonight is bound to get you. Three rhythms are infused into the piece—the bolero, the samba, and the merengue—are used to illustrate the passion and joy that Maria and Tony are feeling.
The bembé rhythm from West Africa is used to express Tony’s love and desire for Maria in the song bearing her name. The piece is arranged by Eugene Marlow and is the sweetest piece from the whole program.
From the restraint of Cool to the unrestrained violence of The Rumble/Rumba, the mixed rhythms tell the story as well as any lyric could. The duet between the lead trombone (Tony) and lead alto saxophone (Maria) in One Hand, One Heart includes a mix of samba and bolero. Other songs from West Side Story are heard in reference with a build-up to Something’s Coming.
Somewhere is the very image of hopefulness and longing for a better place and a better time. All is torn away from them, however, in the death of Tony as heard in Epilogue/Finale. In the background is heard a reprise of I Have a Love and Somewhere.
West Side Story Reimagined is Bobby’s retelling of the story in his way, seen through the eyes of love and gratitude and, often, uncertainty.
As Bobby says, this is “a reimagining from 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.” Aché is Energy.
In my review of Bobby’s album, Multiverse, I said that “Bobby is a prophet of life.” That was never truer than with West Side Story Reimagined.
On Saturday, August 10, 2018, Bobby and the Big Band performed the whole album for free in front of the Lincoln Center. Jazz Promo Services chief, Jim Eigo, sent the following message.
"It was an old fashioned Palladium party last night (8-10-18) in San Juan Hill aka Damrosch Park as maestro Bobby Sanabria celebrated maestro Leonard Bernstein with a powerful performance of his West Side Story Reimagined with his Multiverse Big Band that features some of the finest players from NYC, Puerto Rico, Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Japan and more.
"There was poetry from La Bruja (who reminded everyone that the opening scenes for the film West Side Story were shot in that very location where Lincoln Center now stands) and Rich Villar, a great multi-media photo slide show of vintage photographs of legendary Latin musicians, the old neighborhoods of San Juan Hill, the South Bronx and El Bario that were projected on a big screen behind the band.
"Supreme court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was also in attendance."
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl