You know the rap about symphonic orchestras playing jazz. Can’t swing. There to frame real jazz musicians in pretty strings. Pops orchestra. Sure, Charlie Parker and Strings was great but strings without Charlie Parker? Are you kidding?
And then there’s the Netherlands Radio’s Metropole Orkest, directed by Connecticut-born Vince Mendoza. Mendoza’s had plenty of practice working with large and/or off-beat instrumentation. Listen to the full-throated brass of “Anjelicus” with its three French horns, bass trombone and tuba from his 1990 date Capitol date Start Here and you’ll know he was better than half-way there two decades ago. Teamed with the Metropole since ’95, he’s proven that symphony-styled orchestras are great for the same reasons as any great big band: the harmonic possibilities, the infinite orchestral combinations, the size of the sound. And the Orkest not only swings, it bops, it comps, it gets funky. Tight percussive accents punctuate lyrical, beautifully-paced string lines. There’s not a weak section to be heard, even in numbers recorded live.
The Scofield date finds Mendoza and the orchestra dealing in depth and development. Mendoza brings in a rhythm section and organist and picks up the sax. “Jung Parade” opens with organ trio only, a familiar Sco’ format. Then, the brass starts dropping in counterpoint. The harmonics bring tension and resolution, following the guitarist as he suckles up to the plenty. Over the bridge, the tune takes on chamber airs, a trumpet fanfare harmonized with the guitar. The ballads are rich in strings and brass honey. The funk tunes are vise-grip tight.
It’s surprising how well it works. Mendoza and Scofield have some history; that doesn’t hurt. But its as if the orchestra were designed just for Sco’ and his electric contrasts. It kisses up during the ballads, blows through the rockers and hits some gritty beat-and-groove. Dig those funky, muted trumpets! How the strings bring a dark, uncoiling undertone? Then off come the mutes!
Even with a few ringers in the rhythm section, it’s all about the arranging, some of it by Mendoza, some by Jim McNeely and Florian Ross. On the Metropole’s recent tribute to Joe Zawinul, Fast City, Mendoza does all the arranging. But it’s less the arrangement — Zawinul had already done a masterful job — and more the orchestration. The harmonics make the music.
Again there are some ringers — former Weather Report bassist Victor Bailey, percussionist Alex Acuna and drummer Peter Erskine — and for the same reasons. Bringing in the rhythm section guarantees the ethnically-expanisve Zawinul drive. Erskine is the only drummer who can pin the incessant rhythm like he does — those tom and hi-hat unison accents, the emphatic crescendos as the strings and woodwinds fade away, the sheer never-falter power of it.
Zawinul put a full range of symphonic sounds through his synthesizer and now the orchestra does it au naturel. Mendoza doesn’t second guess Zawinul’s sound. Instead, he orchestrates the original with the Orkest’s acoustic instruments and just enough electric touches — guitar, bass and of course synthesizers — to keep the music’s original spark. The oboe break in “Nubian Sundance” is straight off the Weather Report’s Mysterious Traveler album . That’s because it’s the perfect instrument for the part.
Unlike the Absolute Ensemble’s project with Zawinul, Absolute Zawinul, which chose more obscure pieces, Medoza picked stalwarts from the glory days of Weather Report; not “Birdland,” but the tunes from that era that were deep, thematically sophisticated and harmonized in their composer’s signature style. Their familiarity is a reason the recording is so amazing; the Orkest and guests get the best from Zawinul’s compositions. Guitarist Amit Chatterjee adds the vocal touches that so humanized Zawinul’s electric sound. There’s even a version of “In A Silent Way.”
It’s not all in Zawinul’s shadow. A trumpet solo bursts out of “Fast City” and the orchestra swings in hard-bop style that Weather Report didn’t visit (but Zawinul did at other times in his career, see “Cannonball Adderley”) before the tune turns back to its long, melodic theme. The strings on “Peace” are lush and lanquid. It could easily be mistaken for some 20th century concerto. And “In A Silent Way” has never been heard like this before, even if it’s appropriate a trumpet takes the lead.
So the jazz orchestra evolves. It’s not just bigger, it’s better (in its own way), too. And, as in some jazz-meets-symphony-projects, it doesn’t forget the individual. Especially, the arranger.–Cabbage Rabbit