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Vince Mendoza: Color, Counterpoint and Open Ears

By Published: September 10, 2007
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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.


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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