Arturo Sandoval thought he was being asked to write one song for Clint Eastwood’s new film, “The Mule.” But when Sandoval arrived at the actor-director’s office on the Warner Bros. lot, Eastwood sat him down, showed him the whole film and said, “I want you to write the score.”
Sandoval said yes without hesitating. “I’m available and affordable,” he added with a laugh.
The jazz trumpeter has won Grammy Awards and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and his collaborators have ranged from Frank Sinatra to Alicia Keys. He’s written music for the concert hall, including a trumpet concerto, and even composed an Emmy-winning score for the story of his own life — “For Love or Country,” the 2000 HBO movie that starred Andy Garcia.
But at age 70, Sandoval finally has his first big-screen score, and it’s something he has wanted badly.
“This is my biggest passion,” Sandoval said by phone from his Tarzana home, where he starts every morning with an espresso and cigar, sitting at a piano that once belonged to jazz legend Oscar Peterson. “I love it more than anything else within music — even more than playing gigs. And I pray to God that I could have a lot more chances.”
Eastwood is an avowed jazz fan and had seen Sandoval perform in clubs over the years. But he didn’t want a jazz score for “The Mule,” a movie about a nonagenarian who becomes a cartel drug runner. In fact, he didn’t want much music at all — in line with his sparsely scored body of films, many of which he co-scored himself.
The theme that plays during the main titles is a bittersweet melody for Sandoval’s trumpet over delicate string and piano chords.
“He don’t want to give away, in the very beginning, all the drama and all the problem that come afterward,” the composer said, explaining Eastwood’s directive. “It’s kind of a neutral feeling.”
The rest of Sandoval’s brief score — less than 20 minutes total — is mostly devoted to the regret that Eastwood’s character, Earl Stone, feels toward the family he neglected. A slow, noir-like theme for muted trumpet fit the bill.
Sandoval also wrote two dance songs for a pool party scene at the Mexican mansion of a drug lord (played by Garcia) — as well as a mariachi song that plays on a car radio. Sandoval wrote the lyrics, sang and played every instrument on the latter.
Sandoval played all of the trumpet parts for the “Mule” score, which was recorded at — where else? — the Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Bros., with an 82-piece orchestra and a 20-piece big band. He also played most of the piano and some of the French horn, trombone and percussion, and he conducted an orchestra for the first time.
“The beginning, I was kind of nervous,” he said. “But after three or four minutes of doing it, man, I start to feel a lot more relaxed and confident.”
Some critics have been troubled by the film’s characterization of Latinos, who are almost uniformly presented as drug dealers and criminals, as well as Eastwood’s breezily racist character. Sandoval agreed that films in general need to do a better job of presenting good and bad portraits of ethnic groups, but he isn’t bothered by the politically incorrect protagonist of “The Mule.”
“You cannot relate that behavior and those lines with the movie itself, or with Clint,” he said, citing online footage of the arrest of the man who inspired the story, Leo Sharp. “You have to put it in context, and think about that old man — that was his mentality. That was the way he talked, and the way he thought.”
Sandoval will help to usher in the holidays at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday in a concert of Latin-flavored yuletide music with his big band and the Notre Dame Children’s Choir. He said he might end the show with one of the songs he wrote for “The Mule.”
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of Sandoval’s flight from Cuba. He sought political asylum in the U.S., and he doesn’t think he would be allowed to go back even if he wanted to.
“I have no interest,” he said bluntly. “I don’t want to see the situation that’s going on there. I don’t want to suffer that horrible thing, to see my country completely destroyed. Because the situation in the country is getting worse by the minute. People are completely desperate, people are hopeless. Nobody sees the light at the end of the tunnel, because they cannot even see the tunnel.”
Sandoval said it’s almost as if his life didn’t begin until age 40, when he arrived in America. This is where he raised his family, and it’s the land of opportunity.
“I have no words to express my gratitude for everything that happened to us in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s more than a dream.”
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‘Swinging Christmas With the Arturo Sandoval Big Band’
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday