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.
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?
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?
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!