Vince Mendoza’s Really Big Big Band

Our introduction to composer/arranger Vince Mendoza came in the early ’90s with his Blue Note albums Start Here and Instructions Inside. The recordings featured some great musicians — Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Ralph Towner, Peter Erskine and Bob Mintzer among them — and a sort of post-Gil Evans music that immediately caught our attention with its orchestration and harmonics. Mendoza’s since done compositions and arrangements for Elvis Costello, Charlie Haden, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Al DiMeola, Bjork, Kurt Elling, the Yellowjackets and others.

In 1995, Mendoza took over as director of the Netherlands Public Broadcasting Network’s Metropole Orkest, a symphony-sized ensemble known to embrace a wide swath of jazz, pop and classical music. His recent recordings with the Metropole, 54, a showcase for electric guitarist John Scofield, and Fast City, a collection of Joe Zawinul tunes arranged by Mendoza for the Orkest, are something unusual in the cross-over world of jazz instrumentation. Mendoza write more than framing for the orchestra. It ‘s various sections become active contributors to the music, not just background.  Their sound, an embrace of acoustic and instrumental possibilities applied to rhythms thought foreign and impossible for large ensembles, is groundbreaking.

I interviewed Mendoza via email in April for a piece written for the Playboy Jazz Festival’s program entitled the “The Evolution and Endless Attraction of Big Bands.” Here’s the entirety of our exchange.

Do you see your work as an extension of the jazz big band or something entirely different? What’s the difference when you’re writing/recording with 54 piece rather than 17; what art the advantages and the drawbacks?

The first hurdle is to overcome the tremendous traditions associated with the big band and the expectations associated with this instrumentation. A good number of contemporary jazz composers are taking advantage of the instrumentation of the big band as well as taking it to another level, opening up the possibilities and getting away from cliché. The same of course is true of the orchestra.  Some composers have a certain expectation of what to do with a string section or a set of orchestral winds that may or may not have anything to do with being contemporary. I try not to let instrumentation be a distraction. It write for the big band or orchestra based on the feeling of the music and the desired textures associated with that. Sometimes it sounds like Debussy, but other times it is like Thad Jones, or Zawinul, or Brookmeyer, or well, Brahms. it is all about the ideas of the compositions and how the musicians can be a part of the party. The rest is orchestration.

Of course the next part of the challenge is to get the individual musicians to think like a group, and listen to each other while interpreting the music the way you (as the writer) want it.  It isn’t always easy to get strings to phrase like brass players, let alone have them groove with a rhythm section. Getting musicians to feel the music and translate it to their instruments can be difficult in this regard.
You’ve done work with the London Symphony… is that again something different? Or is there some kind of common denominator? Traditionally, these kinds of works seem to frame a jazz soloist inside the symphonic sound. Your work (as on 54 and Epiphany) seems more integrated (ie, the orchestra plays more than just a supporting role and works like another instrument with the featured guest). How do you achieve this as you compose and arrange?
Every group is different.  It is very important when working with primarily symphonic groups to understand the world in which they exist. You can’t train a symphony orchestra to play funky in 3 hours. You can’t teach a sax section to play Stravinsky in a day. But there are some elements of all music that are similar, and younger musicians are much more open to playing in different languages. Ultimately you need to bring some music to the table that can be understood and then communicated by the musicians. This is why the Jazz elements of Epiphany were primarily transmitted by the improvisors and rhythm section, with a few exceptions, of course. My point of view of this music was more classical than that of “54” which was much more in the Jazz arena. But the LSO was still very much integrated into the compositions on Epiphany. And they sure played great!  The Metropole of course is multilingual, and connected with the spirit of John’s compositions and my approach to arranging them. This makes it much easier to write parts for the musicians, knowing that they know exactly where to put it, and how their parts fit in with the other members of the group.
How difficult are the financial circusmtances for the Metropole, despite the support it receives from the Netherlands Public Braodcasting Network and in light of the budget cuts to arts support in this country?
The Netherlands has probably the most complicated broadcast system in the world.   And the Metropole Orkest, along with the Philharmonic, the Choir and Chamber Orchestra are right in the middle of it.  The MO was started after world war 2, modeled after the Paul Whiteman orchestra. Its primary reason to exist in those days, up until, say, the 60’s was to play live music on the radio, much in the same way live music was broadcast on the radio in the US before the musicians strike in the 40s. Like Whiteman, it spent a lot of time in people’s living rooms. Like everywhere else, the function of the orchestra changed over the years (as did the music) and the MO started to do more CD and Film/TV projects as well as participate in cultural events like festivals and concerts. Now the orchestra has its hand in every major music festival in the Netherlands (including a yearly project at the Northsea Jazz Festival), plays on Dutch movies and tv scores, and especially since I have been involved, been responsible for some excellent high profile CD recordings. The orchestra has literally been seen and heard by millions. Last year the incoming government instituted some draconian changes in the stucture of the government in general, but categorically wiped out all of the broadcast orchestras as of ’14. However since then this policy was re-vamped and we see the situation stabilizing somewhat. However it will never be what it was in terms of government support. But we have every reason to feel that the Metropole has a future, not because of its association with the now ailing (but still convoluted) broadcast system there, but because in my opinion it has in the past 66 years become an indelible part of the cultural and media landscape there, and I can never really see it going away. It is too important to the identity (and history) of the Dutch to lose it.
What are your future goals for the Metropole?

I have always thought that we need to get the orchestra out of the cellar and onto the concert stage and in front of the community. We are continuing that course. We have a profile to spend the seasons playing Jazz, World Music, Pop, Dutch Cabaret, Film and Historic repertoire, and spend several weeks a year on Educational projects like our yearly Arrangers Workshop. We just finished a live CD with Al Jarreau and another with King Crimson guitarist Adrien Belew.  Next year they have Todd Rundgen, a Bollywood program and I am conducting a concert of the music of Esquivel. Diverse?? You Bet!

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