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Vince Mendoza: Color, Counterpoint and Open Ears

By Published: September 10, 2007
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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?


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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