Drummer Bobby Sanabria was born in the South Bronx in 1957, the same year West Side Story opened on Broadway. As a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who first experienced that musical through its 1961 film adaptation, Sanabria was most transfixed by how well composer Leonard Bernstein’s instrumental themes captured the Puerto Rican flavor of New York’s Upper West Side during that period. To celebrate the show’s 60th anniversary last year, and what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday this year, Sanabria’s 22-piece Multiverse Big Band impressively recorded the double-disc West Side Story Reimagined in a single night in late 2017 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan.
This is not an abridged medley like that of the Buddy Rich Big Band. Sanabria and company capture the feel of the entire production, from the Sharks-versus-Jets gang battles to the familiar, Romeo and Juliet-inspired cultural divide bridged by romance. Trumpeter Kevin Bryan’s whistling and the ensemble’s finger snaps introduce the rival gangs during “Prologue,” which includes a horn-heavy swing midsection between its strutting, percussion-driven main themes. The 6/8-timed “America” likewise spotlights the 13-piece horn section (plus flute)’s power, with stellar solos by pianist Darwin Noguera and bassist Leo Traversa. And on “Gym Scene – Blues/Mambo” and “Gym Scene – Cha Cha Cha,” Sanabria and the band’s trio of percussionists (Oreste Abrantes, Matthew Gonzalez, Takao Heisho) dig into the seminal rhythms that helped define Latin jazz.
Disc two opens with Sanabria and Abrantes chanting in Spanish about “Maria,” the production’s central female character, leading to an accelerated, intense percussion breakdown. Indeed, it’s Sanabria’s percussive concept that most reimagines West Side Story, as he, Abrantes, Gonzalez, and Heisho add congas, bongo and bata drums, cowbells, claves, guiros, maracas, and more to strong readings of “The Rumble/Rumba” and “Somewhere.” Perhaps the only thing more powerful than the music is the fact that a portion of the release’s sales benefit the Jazz Foundation of America’s Puerto Rico Relief Fund, which aids Sanabria’s ancestral island’s rebuilding effort after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.