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Vince Mendoza: Color, Counterpoint and Open Ears

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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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