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Interviews

Vince Mendoza: Color, Counterpoint and Open Ears

By Published: September 10, 2007

When Im composing any music, it all starts from improvisations, and then the end result is that it inspires improvisation. Thats how I think I can reconcile myself to being a composer in a medium thats not supposed to too composed.

Vince MendozaIf Vince Mendoza were only known as a composer, he'd still be worth interviewing; his songs have been covered by Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Kurt Elling, Charlie Haden and John Abercrombie. He'd be fascinating to talk to if he were only known as a recording bandleader—his early records Start Here (Blue Note, 1990) and Instructions Inside (Blue Note, 1991), his big band CD Sketches (ACT, 1994) and his orchestral recording Epiphany (Zebra, 1999) are all jazz classics that stand up to repeated listenings. He would be strikingly accomplished if he were merely an arranger and conductor, as evidenced by his work with the WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany, and the Dutch Metropole Orchestra, for whom he is currently the artistic director.

But Mendoza's all of these things—composer, bandleader, conductor, and arranger—and he fills these roles in a vast variety of musical genres: jazz, symphonic music, world music, pop, you name it. His vast skills as an arranger and composer are augmented by a personality confident enough to collaborate with musical figures as legendarily intimidating as Joe Zawinul and Joni Mitchell.



I spoke with Mendoza about his solo work, his thoughts on composing and arranging, his recent collaborations with Zawinul, Mitchell and Björk, and a good deal more.

Chapter Index

  1. Working With the WDR Big Band
  2. Joe Zawinul's Brown Street: Not Being Scared
  3. Zawinul's Power and Groove, Mendoza'sEpiphany and Thoughts on Counterpoint
  4. Solo Recordings and "the Song-Writing Vince
  5. Sketches and Multi-Genre Facility
  6. Comping and Accompaniment
  7. Epiphany
  8. Working With Björk
  9. Working With Joni Mitchell
  10. Metropole Orchestra



Working With the WDR Big Band

All About Jazz: You're one of the busiest people I think I've interviewed, and there are so many aspects to your work in terms of collaborators, composition, arrangement and conducting. I really imagine you surrounded by sheet music, even as we speak.

I am just going to begin by asking about your work with the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany, for starters. This should pull us in to some specific work you've done with them. Your work as guest conductor and arranger for this ensemble did a lot to get you known, and of course they seem capable of playing anyone's music just stunningly.

Before we go into any specific work you've done with them, tell me how you got involved with this band, what you admire about them, and what you try to get out of them musically.

Vince Mendoza: Well, over the course of your career as a musician, you encounter opportunities to work with a lot of different people in a lot of different situations. The beginning of working with the WDR came from my experiences with [drummer] Peter Erskine and [composer/keyboardist Joe] Zawinul in the early days when I was writing tunes and had my own big band—I did a lot of arranging then for my own group. So I was asked to arrange some music for Joe Zawinul and the WDR band; this was years ago, during his Weather Update days, I think. Actually, I think it when he had started doing his solo records—that first one, the Dialects record [Columbia, 1986]. The WDR did a project with him, so they asked me to arrange some of his music.

The group, and the producer at the time, Wolfgang Hirschmann, were happy with what I did, and asked me to come back and do a project of my own music. I asked Peter, [guitarist] John Abercrombie and [pianist] John Taylor to come and play on that project. So I went to conduct and work with the band; by then I was working fairly steadily as a professional musician with professional ensembles, and starting to guest-conduct in various places. And when you do that, you get to know the dynamics of groups, and how people work, and how people like to work, and what you would like to get out of them.

Vince

So it was a combination of approaching the situation as a composer with my own music and trying to communicate my ideas to them—and also as a conductor, to try to see what to get out of them musically, and how it's possible to do that. It was something of a trial by fire, and a very meaningful experience for me musically, because I was really working with a very high-level jazz group. And with the best rhythm section of Peter Erskine, John Taylor and Abercrombie. So it was quite a wonderful experience, and we had some nice takes and some nice times.

After that, I was asked to work on the Jazzpaña record [Atlantic, 1992] with the WDR, [producer] Siegfried Lock and [legendary producer/arranger] Arif Mardin. Things just blossomed from there; I met a lot of people through that connection. And that was really happening at the same time as my other activities as a composer and my solo records—the big band record Sketches and the two Blue Notes, Start Here and Instructions Inside. I really met a lot of musicians through all those projects, not just the ones for the WDR, but as a freelance composer doing records.

AAJ: At this point, how often do you find yourself working with the WDR?

VM: I work with them fairly often, but not as frequently as I have in the past, partly because of my other schedule with the [Dutch jazz/pop large ensemble] Metropole Orchestra, and my freelance activities as a composer and arranger with other artists. It's hard to really be able to commit too much time to go out to do that. But I'm seeing them twice this year. I wrote a dance piece for the band and a dance company from Lausanne; we do that with the dancers and the musicians, all live. It averages to about two or three times a season. But it's a wonderful band, and I've become friends with a lot of them over the years. It's wonderful to go there, and I love Cologne—it's a great city.

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Joe Zawinul's Brown Street: Not Being Scared

AAJ: I mentioned this group first just because I like Brown Street so much, the new double-live Joe Zawinul recording on which he revisits some of his older material, including, of course, a lot of Weather Report stuff. You did all the arrangements but one on the recording, and absolutely fantastic arrangements they are, performed by Joe, the WDR, percussionist Alex Acuña, bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Nathaniel Townsley. These are very tight performances that are often downright thrilling.

While the arrangements are true to the original songs, they're not afraid of them. How'd you approach this and in what manner did you work with Zawinul?

VM: I think the best way to approach working with Joe in general is to not be afraid of him [laughing]. Because he's a boxer, too, so you have to approach going into the ring with him in a very confident manner, and have a plan. But I owe a lot of what I think being a jazz composer is all about to my experiences with Joe, from working with him and listening to his records over the years—just hearing what he has done with his group.

This particular project had a couple of different stages. Some of the music came from the original arrangements that I wrote for Joe years ago—that period of time we just talked about. And a few of them came from a project that I did with the WDR that was a tribute to Joe, a project that he did not participate in. I took a lot more liberty with the approach to the arrangements for that tribute project; I put a lot more of my own view of what I thought the tunes were about, and how I wanted to transform them. I'll come back to that in a second.

And the third part of it was the arrangements that I wrote specifically for this particular record. I think those ones were "Brown Street, "Black Market and "A Remark You Made —those are the ones that I remember. Those arrangements, and the first ones, really had to do with listening to what Joe really wanted them to consist of and making them a vehicle for him to do his thing. The middle group of the arrangements were more of what I saw as creating moments around how I wanted to transform those tunes, so I took a lot more liberties in terms of orchestration, form, feeling.



I remember when we had rehearsals for that particular tribute project, Joe happened to be there, and we had some discussions about how the band was approaching a certain tune—we had differences about how they should do it. It didn't really match how he had originally thought the tunes should be—but in that situation, it was all about what I wanted the tunes to be.

But when we did this record, it turned back into a Joe record, obviously, and it was really about what he wanted. So when we did that final bunch of tunes that were arranged specifically for the record, it was about working around the energy of the piece, and the solos, and power. Because a lot of the music really is about groove, and power, and rhythm, not so much about transparent color variation and density variation—the kinds of things I might think about if I was given more license.

A lot of the later pieces took from the very early traditions of big band music, which had a lot to do with Joe's vision of writing. Whenever I wanted to find a path—how to do something, or how to voice something, or how dense something should get—it always harkened back to Duke Ellington. What would Duke have done in this case? What might he have written?

Vince

And that made it easier, because that, I think, is the thing that Joe always took as a point of departure as well. Look at the [Weather Report] Night Passage record [Columbia, 1980]; look at "Rockin' in Rhythm, and the way he approaches playing vertical textures with the synthesizer—the rhythmic ideas and comping. It really has to do with the density and rhythmic approach that Duke Ellington took with the big band. So when I put that into the context of a grooving rhythm section, it worked pretty well.

AAJ: I certainly understand what you mean by density and power. One of the extremes in terms of expressing those qualities might be the arrangement on this CD of "Fast City, where your arrangement pushes the intensity of an already-intense song up to almost panic-attack levels. But then there's your arrangement of "In a Silent Way on this set, which has a very caressing quality, and almost sounds rubato—for a big band, anyway. There, your ensemble parts provide a sort of counterpoint to the trumpet melody.

VM: Well, that's absolutely true. In that particular piece, it was all about the progression of the song and the orchestration around it. It wasn't really a classic jazz ballad; it was a trumpet piece that was orchestrally conceived—except the orchestra consisted of trumpets, trombones and woodwinds. I've done a couple re-orchestrations of that particular arrangement, and it works well because my original concept was to be thinking about color and counterpoint, textures and movement, without the aid of a perpetually bubbling rhythm section.

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Zawinul's Power and Groove, Mendoza'sEpiphany and Thoughts on Counterpoint

VM: And that's sort of the essence of the way that I work in that context, when I'm thinking orchestrally, and in terms of texture, and density, and counterpoint. The rhythm section sort of takes care of itself, and reacts to those events. I think that's one reason for the success of my Epiphany record as well; the rhythm section that played with the orchestra was reacting to a lot of what I thought was a contrapuntal approach to presenting the songs.

AAJ: That concept of a rhythm section responding is interesting. On this Zawinul CD, you have the WDR with featured guests. Zawinul isn't exactly a guest, but you have a sort of Weather-Report-like drums, percussion and bass bottom, and I found myself wondering just where they fit into your arrangements—if at times, what you've written doesn't work with such a bottom.

VM: Well, in this case, with the Zawinul record, it's a different story, because a lot of the songs were not conceived for any more than five humans to play—and even their human status is questionable [laughing], because in some cases it seems kind of superhuman for Weather Report to have been able to play that stuff.



Also, in terms of the orchestration, a lot of things that are conceived with synthesizers just do not work out with acoustic instruments—both for acoustic reasons and just purely musical reasons. The kinds of sounds you might get from the synthesizer might inspire certain parts, but not others. It's the same with acoustic instruments; lots of things you might hear played on an acoustic instrument are not easily replicated by a synthesizer.

So that was a challenge in itself—to try to translate some of this music to human beings, seventeen human beings. That music, as I said, is really all about power and groove. I think Joe would agree. To a certain extent, the horns were accentuating the experience that was created by the rhythm section. Not vice-versa. The rhythm section was not accentuating what the horns were doing.

Vince

I think that's part of the essence of what that music is about; it's all about the groove and the power, and the horns—saxophones, trumpets and trombones—accentuate that principle. The only difference, perhaps, for me, would be "In a Silent Way, where the song is about the melody and the orchestration and the construction of the counterpoint that goes along with the melody. So there, it wasn't about that power and groove; it was about something else.

So with Joe's music, it was really about the horns accentuating that power and groove you get from the rhythm section. With my Epiphany, and, I think, to a certain extent, a lot of the music on my other records—Start Here and Instructions Inside and Sketches, the big-band record—the rhythm section had an equal role in responding and accentuating what the wind and strings and soloists were doing.

AAJ: Just to clear something up before I move on to your own composing work—are you conducting the band on this Zawinul Brown Street record? Did you lead the rehearsals?

VM: I didn't. A lot of that music was prepared by me in earlier periods, so they knew a lot of the older pieces—"Fast City, "Silent Way, that stuff. The later things that I mentioned were prepared by Joe. They did have rehearsals before a tour, but I wasn't able to make those rehearsals. Those WDR schedules tend to be crystallized very late, and I wasn't able to make that tour and do the thing in Vienna with his band. Those recordings were made in Vienna, right?

AAJ: Yes. October of 2005 in Vienna.

VM: Right. I couldn't make those.

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Solo Recordings and "the Song-Writing Vince

AAJ: I want to talk about the records you've done under your own name. The first thing I feel compelled to mention is your very first record, Vince Mendoza, which you recorded between 1985 and 1989, and which no one seems to know—it's not even listed on your website discography!

VM: It's not? Oh. That's weird.

AAJ: A lot of people think of Start Here, your 1990 disc, as your debut. And to me it's very representative of your work. It's got that almost spiritual restlessness and that distinct voicings and counterpart that I hear in your compositions. It's got people like Peter Erskine and bassist Will Lee, like later records. There's nothing, then, you want to forget about this record?

VM: Oh, no. In fact, I think a lot of what that record was about had to do with the tune-writing Vince, and that power and groove we were talking about with Joe. A lot of the stuff I'd learned from Joe had to do with that music. So I think it's a really important record, and it formed the genesis of a lot of relationships that I had with musicians after that. [Guitarist] Mike Stern, [pianist] Don Grolnick, Will—everybody played on that. [Pianist] Jim McNeely played on that, and of course [saxophonists] Bob Mintzer and Mike Brecker. I'm sure I'm leaving people out.

But it was the beginning of everything. It was [laughing] also the beginning of my understanding of the record business! I worked really hard on it, it was a fabulous recording, and the band played wonderfully well. And everybody's on it, in terms of hiding my own obscurity at the time—there were a lot of big names on it. And, of course, it failed to even be released in the United States.

AAJ: Oh, yes. Japan-only, right?

VM: Yeah. I think you had to be a lottery winner to actually be able to find it at this point. But I'm hoping to see if I can put it out again on my website, or something like that.

AAJ: Your albums Start Here, Instructions Inside, Jazzpaña and Sketches all came out within a four-year period, 1990 to 1994, and established you as this remarkable composer, arranger and large-ensemble leader. The first two are rather comparable recordings, and of course Jazzpaña and Sketches are their own animals, but we are talking about a recording a year, which put you firmly in the expected production cycle of the jazz artist. This wasn't the end of your recorded output as a composer, but the only thing out since then—not counting the things you've done on, say, Jimmy Haslip's Arc, or the Animato record with John Abercrombie and Jon Christenson—is your very remarkable Epiphany with the London Symphony Orchestra. It's not like you're not always working, but you seem to have stepped away from the standard album-a-year model. Any reason?

VinceVM: The main reason is that I just don't have the time. I've had the suitcase with the music for my next solo record ready to go—I'm ready for the plane to take off. But whenever I'm ready for the plane to take off, some other thing comes in that I have to do. So I think a lot of my solo composition work has taken a back seat to the arranging path that I've been taking over the last few years. I'm hoping that the next Vince record is coming up quickly. I had plans to do it recently, and now I'm planning to do it later this year.

So I'm really hoping that's going to happen, but I think it had more to do with timing than anything else. After Epiphany, I met up with [producer/bassist] Larry Klein, and we did some recordings together—of course, the Joni [Mitchell] records [Both Sides Now (Reprise, 2000), and Travelogue (Nonesuch, 2002)], and the Joni things led to other things. I just felt that I wanted to be involved in a wider circle of music; something I wanted to do ever since I was a kid was be involved in every kind of music I could possibly do. And to be able to work on some interesting pop records was, for me, a reasonable way to spend my time.

Now, I would say that I'm ready to get back into what it is that I was doing before all of that happened. But I still have that bug in me—when somebody calls me to do something, it's hard for me to say no.

AAJ: Right. And that's the first step to actually doing it—being able to very specifically say no to some people who might not call back the next time.

VM: Yeah, that's true. And maybe I'm going to have to make those kinds of decisions. And of course my involvement with the Metropole Orchestra as their artistic director now is taking me out there once a month, so it's hard for me to really budget my time say, "yeah, I'm going to take a month and do my own solo record. It's hard for me to take a month to do anything—any one thing in particular, let alone a record of my own music. But I do think that's the only way that's going to happen.

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Sketches and Multi-Genre Facility

AAJ: Let's talk about Sketches, the 1994 album you did with WDR Big Band and people like soprano saxman Dave Liebman and Peter Erskine. It starts with a piece by Ravel, but then the meat of it is "Sketches, Part 1-8, which is very wonderful music that really blends so many aspects of what you do. It's a unique recording.

I get the impression the pieces grew out of your own improvised piano sketches?

VM: Yes. But, you know, both the Jazzpaña and Sketches recordings were not originally going to be recordings—at least, I didn't know it was in the plan to actually make CDs out of the music. They were really thought of projects for the WDR to do either in concert or at a festival. Jazzpaña was an idea that Siegi Lock had, I think, and in that way, it was intended to be a record. But in terms of the WDR, they wanted a project to do in concert, and the fact that we recorded it just made a document that the project existed.

Vince

Sketches was a commission to write a piece for the Berlin Jazz Festival that featured soprano saxophones. So a lot of the music in that multi-movement work had whole sections playing sopranos—and Dave, obviously. So it was originally a concept of a project that was for a festival, and so my original process was to come up with improvisations that I thought could be worked through into longer-form compositions.

That's a similar process that I take when I'm composing any music—it all starts from improvisations, and then the end result is that it inspires improvisation. That's how I think I can reconcile myself to being a composer in a medium that's not supposed to too composed [laughing].

So, a lot of that piece, or all of that piece, came from improvisations and little sketches that I wrote, and it was made into a longer-form piece and orchestrated for the band.

AAJ: I can't think of another composer/arranger who's as comfortable with so many elements of music as you are. A lot of guys who do fantastic charts for large ensemble jazz aren't comfortable with electric guitar, let alone synthesizer, and you seem without divisions in your sensibilities. Which, I suppose, is why you can work with someone with as much of an electronic element as Björk. The only person working in a similar way with the same openness and competence would have been Gil Evans, I think. Any thoughts on this?

VM: I think it really has to do with the early experiences I had. I didn't grow up listening to jazz records like a lot of jazz musicians did. I listened to the radio, and so part of my music sensibility had to do with pop music. Obviously, the electric guitar is a big player in that, and in R&B as well. Also, as a child, I studied classical guitar, and I picked up a trumpet—so little by little, different styles crept in.



As a trumpet player, I played a lot of classical music and some jazz, Latin music. But I didn't really learn about traditional jazz styles until I was in college. I had a few Miles Davis records that I loved in high school, and a smattering of experience playing jazz, playing the chord changes, but it wasn't until I got to college that I really knew what Coltrane was about, or learned about Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, Bird, and everybody.



>So a lot of what my sensibilities in jazz are about have to do with what I brought into it. I brought in r&b, and pop, and classical music. So I think my facility with all those styles has to do with my younger days, and how I developed as a musician. And I do feel comfortable with all of those styles—because I love them all, and want to spend time with them, and try to understand further what they're about and why and how they exist. My experience as a conductor now is to try to help musicans who don't understand these styles to know how to execute them. In order to do that, I need to understand it more from a technical aspect, and a visceral one as well.

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Epiphany

AAJ: Let's talk a bit more about your Epiphany record, which you did in 1997 with the London Symphony Orchestra and such players as John Abercrombie, [sax players] Joe Lovano, Michael Brecker and the perfect drum/bass combo of Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson, who really push the music forward in the most unobtrusive way.

These are great compositions of yours, and I think this is significant in that it demonstrates how amazingly you score for strings. This is truly a combination of classical and jazz music—what people used to call "third stream. Tell me how this project came about.

VinceVM: This was sort of on the heels of the Sketches record. I was approached by [impresario/producer] Michael Watt and his company. For me, the natural progression of things was to think about doing some music for orchestra. At the time, I had started working for the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands, so I was working with orchestras a little bit more. But I had never had a lot of orchestras playing my music. I'd written a lot of television music in Los Angeles for orchestras, but not anything I would say was my own thing. My experience was really mostly big-band and smaller ensembles—maybe some larger orchestras playing experimental music that I'd written.

But I think it was time for me to try to translate my own thing for orchestra. So we decided to do it, but I really wanted to wait until I had the right players—people who would really understand what I wanted them to do. That's really part of what you try to do as a composer: you find people who have an affinity to your work and will bring something that you could never even dream existed to your own music.

So fortunately, [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler, who I had admired for many years from the time I was a young trumpet player, was available to do it, and of course Mike Brecker and Joe Lovano. And I think you're right about the rhythm section. Of course, John Abercrombie was one of my guitar heroes, and Pete and Marc are extraordinary on that record. Erskine, in particular, is the perfect orchestral drummer. He's such a great musician and has such wonderful ears—he can really hear what's going on and what needs to happen. It's like what we were talking about before; the rhythm section responds to the orchestra in a way that makes it significant for a jazz record. Having a rhythm section respond to the stimulus of the other players is what jazz is all about.

AAJ: Yeah, and at the same way the way they gently goose things forward—not that that's a very nice way to put it—is really special. It's subtle.

VM: Well, never underestimate the power of [laughing] sight-reading parts at a recording in front of a fifty-piece orchestra to make you a little more aware of your subtleties! But, on the other hand, I think that those types of experiences for the musicians tend to bring out the most honest response. There isn't any time or space to develop self-conscious repetitions of the things you've played before. Your honesty has to come out. That was one of the things I learned with those Blue Note records I did, Start Here in particular. The sessions were done very quickly and there wasn't a lot of time to do a lot of takes, so the solos were very fresh and honest.

AAJ: That might produce good results, but it's got to have its nerve-wracking moments for you, the bandleader and composer.

VM: No, because I know that the people who are playing it are completely used to that. As a player, I could never imagine having that kind of demand put on me. I constantly am amazed that musicians are able to come up with such wonderful things when the red light is on! But I wasn't worried, and I think that they weren't worried. I think there was a mutual trust that it was going to be great.

AAJ: "Wheaten Skies is a great piece on Epiphany, and one of my favorite songs of yours in general. That string introduction also reminds me of Samuel Barber. I could be way off base on that one. I sort of hear that Barber influence in "Sanctus as well.

VM: I think not. And those two songs have a completely different harmonic language at the beginning. "Sanctus is unabashed Stravinsky, intervallic writing. And "Wheaten Skies has more to do with intervals that, for me, were all about Alban Berg, who's one of my favorite composers.

Vince AAJ: "Impromptu is really not jazz at all—it's just an orchestral piece, with a lovely but unresolved sense of yearning, perhaps. Abercrombie's on this one, but role isn't really to solo—he's just one voice with oboe, strings and harp.

VM: Well, of all things, this piece was originally written for trombone. It was a trombone piece, and in fact, I think that Bart van Lier recorded it on a recording I did with him called Twilight (Koch Jazz, 1998). But when I did the LSO version, I took out a lot of the written parts and just let the orchestra accompaniment sit. That's something I learned from [ECM Recordings label head/producer] Manfred Eicher over the years—sometimes you just need to clear out space for something else to happen.

And that was something that happened on the spot, too, when we were recording it. The way the orchestra sounded in the middle sections was so beautiful that I just wanted it to exist on its own and not have other parts inside of it. That's why I think you hear very little of Abercrombie on that piece—just a couple of melodies. But there really isn't all that much else happening in it, because it's a sort of meditative middle section, and I wanted to leave it open so you can hear the orchestration and the space. And it worked out very nicely.

AAJ: It takes an open-eared composer to un-write—to make something less than what it was originally for the benefit of the music.

VM: Right. Well, I think you have to be open to the moment. I've been doing that a lot more lately—taking things out, and letting certain parts exist on their own. I'm a little more focused towards that kind of thing now.

AAJ: "Ambivalence feels like a sort of orchestral blues to me, and of course it's a great Lovano feature. There is an ambivalent quality to the melody, something unresolved. There is very great use of the low and high string voice, and this may be the rhythm section's finest moment on this CD.

VM: That was has probably been recorded a few times. It was originally recorded for Pete Erskine's Sweet Soul record (Novus, 1992). That's one of my favorite records; I love that record. There's another great Joe Lovano solo on that one as well. But that piece was really all about the small group, and the melody, and the orchestra was really counterpoint and texture. You can kind of feel the orchestra with the rhythm section, but there wasn't a lot of statement that was being made with the orchestra.

I love hearing the solos, and it's a really wonderful version of that piece.

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Working With Björk

AAJ: I have to ask you about Björk, whose music I really admire. You did the orchestrations for her 2000 Selmasongs (Elektra) and her 2001 Vespertine (Elektra) CDs, and I just think the world of what you did with her.

I think you worked with her first on the Selmasongs recording, which consists of the musical pieces for Lars von Trier's film Dancer in the Dark. I really love the way you arranged for her, and I hear things she's always liked to use—those surging, ascending melodies—in the string parts you did for her. How'd you come to work with her, and in what manner did you work together?

VM: Well, we met through a project that I did with Don Henley in Los Angeles; she came out and sang a Billie Holiday tune that I arranged for her that I guess she liked. So she called me when she was working on Lars von Trier's movie, and we talked about doing some orchestral music to go along with it. There was a long process of discussion about what we really wanted to do, but the byproduct of the discussion was that we really had a similar approach to what we wanted to do with the music.

And, especially, what we didn't want to do [laughing]. Which had something in common away from Lars, because Lars, I think, wanted something completely different from what both Björk and I, artistically, felt comfortable doing. So of course we went with our instinct and did what we wanted to do.

And she was very kind about giving me license to write what I thought was appropriate, and it was a really nice experience. But it was unlike most other film experiences. The tracks were sent to me, and I wrote around the synths, vocals and drum machine stuff and went to London and recorded it—but I never saw Lars, and we never made demo tapes, and there were no meetings, no revisions, no redos. We just did it, and it was done. They filmed to the music, and that was the end of that.

Vince

I think that her experience as an actress in that movie drove her directly back into the studio for Vespertine; she just wanted to be a musician again. And I welcomed it, of course, and I think that Vespertine is my favorite of all her records.

AAJ: Well, Vespertine is one of my favorite records, period.

VM: It just has so many wonderful layers to it. She did a wonderful job, and I'm very proud to have been able to work on it and be associated with it. But that was a completely different process. We talked a bit about what she wanted the CD to be, and went through some songs, and listened to a few things that didn't end up being on it, and I told her what I thought would be optimal orchestration to use—strings, flutes, percussion. I kind of had this thought that I would try to make it like if Pierre Boulez were writing for the record, and use that percussion and flute aspect. But a lot of that [laughing] didn't get used!

As for the choirs—we did some recordings with choir, and for the original choir that I wrote, we actually had a live choir in the gallery at Air Lindhurst [Studios] playing with the orchestra. They did not use the live choir [laughing]; they used the sampled choir, unfortunately, because I thought the live choir was really quite dramatic, and sounded beautiful. But they used live choir on "Hidden Place, I think.

But the process was really different. It was a little more modular—there were people doing bass parts, and harp parts, and things went in and out. When we recorded it, they put it on the ProTools, and she took it to editing and mixing and used some of it, and didn't use other parts. I suspect that there might have been parts that she relocated—if, say, she wanted strings in some places and not in others. She took a little more control about what she wanted to use and what she didn't want to use. Which wasn't the case with the music for the movie. There, I think we pretty much did the tracks, and got them done, and that was it.

But Vespertine is a very well-crafted record. Everything is where it's supposed to be, in retrospect. And she was wonderful to work with, and a lovely person. I wish all of my gigs could be like that.

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Working With Joni Mitchell

AAJ: I think I must ask about Joni Mitchell. You did the 2000 Both Sides Now and 2002 Travelogue records for her.

VM: Well, both records had a lot to do with my relationship with Larry Klein. Of course, over the years, we've become good friends—but we've also realized that our approach to writing and recording, and the people we like to listen to, and the people we like to read, and the photospheres we like, were all similar. And also, our points of departure with a lot of the music we worked on, whether it was [bassist] Kyle Eastwood, or Joni, or whoever, were similar.

So we had a working language, and a mutual trust, so he let me do what I needed to do, what I wanted to do. And I trusted that I had certain parameters that I needed to work with, and that I could leave others behind. So those two records came out of that relationship.

Vince

For the first one, as you know, most of them are standards. We did a couple of Joni's tunes. And the experience was so nice that we immediately went into plans to do another one, which consisted of all her music this time. I think it was partly because we thought that on the first record, her songs were the most effective in an orchestral setting, treated as tone poems.

Her poetry is so wonderful, and deep, and interesting, that to write poetry in music was the natural thing to do. So the second record was really all about writing tone poems with her music. Of course, there were a lot of challenges involved in that—when to use guitars and when not to, when to use her parts and when not to use her parts, what is composed and what isn't. All the problems inherent in redoing such staples in the American popular culture.

That was a challenge. But just the thought of doing orchestral tone poems to her music was natural; the words are so vibrant and deep that was a natural thing to want to dive into that pool.

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Metropole Orchestra

AAJ: As you point out, you've very involved now with the Metropole Orchestra, the Dutch group. This is really your primary gig now, and you've done a lot of work with them. You did a recording with Elvis Costello last year. Tell me about this group, and how you accentuate that.

VM: Well, the Metropole is a sixty-piece jazz and pop orchestra that works as part of the radio system in the Netherlands. They are, simply put, the only full-time symphonic jazz and pop orchestra in the world. They play everything—they play jazz and pop, world music, film, television. They've done rap concerts, and of course they play a lot of Dutch pop music.

My aim with this orchestra since last year, as the artistic director, is to try to get them out on the world stage, playing interesting projects in all different genres. Not only in jazz, but world music and pop. I want to really put them on the map as a group that everybody needs to know about. So we're having some interesting times; things don't work quickly, but we've scheduled some cool projects. We're doing the North Sea Jazz Festival this year with [trumpeter/composer] Terence Blanchard. This year we had [Argentine bandoneon player] Dino Saluzzi doing a concert with Mariza, the Portuguese fado singer. We had John Scofield also this year. Next year is [Brazilian guitarist] Egberto Gismonti and [Italian composer] Ennio Morricone—they're not playing together. They're separate events. That would be interesting though!

Vince Mendoza

We're doing some recordings. You heard the Elvis recording [My Flame Burns Blue (Deutsche Grammophon, 2006)]. We're doing a recording with the composer and pianist Jim Beard. We're doing a recording with [composer] Gunther Schuller and one with Vicente Amigo, the flamenco guitarist.

So it's a mix of everything. It's a wonderful group; they're very talented and they speak a lot of different musical languages and they understand them all.

AAJ: It sounds like one of the best gigs in the world.

VM: It is a pretty darned good gig. I always feel happy to get out of bed to go to work in the morning, and you can't complain about that. I'm really doing what I had talked about doing when I was a kid—to be as involved in as many different ways of making music as possible.

AAJ: Of all the work you've done, do you have any favorite projects—including both your own compositions and arrangements for others? Is there anyone you'd like to work with that you haven't?

VM: When Joni's Travelogue record came out—when it was released—I sat down and listened to it. I was truly depressed for many months, because I thought, "I cannot do better than this. It's so beautiful, and it was done so well, played so well, mixed and balanced so well—every little note that was supposed to happen, happened. I just thought, "Shit, I can't do any better than this. I should retire.

Which, of course, is not true, because we're always pushing ourselves to do different things. But if I had to think of one thing I'm the most proud of, I'd have to say those Travelogue records. I still listen to them now, and they're still really extraordinary. I regret that we were not able to tour with that project, because it would have been wonderful to hear her again with a live orchestra, singing that music. And where it would have taken her, and the audiences that heard her—I think it could have been a wonderful thing. I think I'm most proud of those records.

And I have fond memories of all the records, because they represent a certain period in my development, and my relationships with other musicians that I want to remember. But purely on a musical basis, the Travelogue records were great, and I think I also really feel a lot for Epiphany as well, because I got to work with Kenny, and Mike and Pete. It's always wonderful. So those two records were my favorites.


Selected Discography

Joe Zawinul, Brown Street (Heads Up International, 2007)
Randy Brecker with Michael Brecker, Some Skunk Funk (Telarc, 2006)
Elvis Costello with the Metropole Orkest, My Flame Burns Blue (Deutsche Grammophon, 2006)
Yuring Honing, Symphonic (Challenge, 2006)
Stefano Di Battista, 'Round About Roma (Blue Note, 2002)
Joni Mitchell, Travelogue (Nonesuch, 2002)
Björk, Vespertine (Elektra, 2001)
Björk, Selmasongs (Elektra, 2000)
Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now (Reprise, 2000)
Vince Mendoza, London Symphony Orchestra, <Epiphany (Zebra Acoustic, 1999)
Bart van Lier, Twilight (Koch Jazz, 1998)
Kyle Eastwood, From Here to There (Columbia, 1998
Vince Mendoza, Sketches (ACT, 1994)
Jimmy Haslip, Arc (GRP, 1993)
Mendoza/Mardin Project, Jazzpaña (Atlantic, 1992)
Vince Mendoza, Instructions Inside (Manhattan, 1991)
Vince Mendoza, Start Here World Pacific, 1990)
John Abercrombie, Animato (ECM, 1990)
Vince Mendoza, Vince Mendoza (H.I.T. Avenue, 1989)
Peter Erskine, Transition (Zenon, 1987)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Pamela Fong

Bottom Photo: Jos L. Knaepen



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