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Vince Mendoza: Color, Counterpoint and Open Ears

By Published: September 10, 2007
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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.


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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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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