Huffpost Arts
Joseph Vella Headshot

Interview: Vince Mendoza (Jazz Composer Extraordinaire)

Posted: Updated:

In the modern era of jazz, finding a true composer to follow is not the easiest thing to do. Especially if the composer can actually write beautifully melodic and emotionally deep music that is also a perfect launching pad rich for improvisation. Vince Mendoza does this and more.

I first became of aware of Vince back in 1991 when he arranged and conducted three tracks off of the Yellowjackets' album Greenhouse. A year later I was introduced to several of his compositions on drummer Peter Erskine's beautiful album titled You Never Know. It was on that album that I became a huge Vince Mendoza fan and kept an ear out for his work whether on his own or with others.

When I heard Vince's album Epiphany in 1997, it immediately became one of my all time favorite recordings. Featuring an all-star jazz group with the London Symphony Orchestra, Epiphany presented eight lush Mendoza originals beautifully arranged, conducted and performed. It still stands as one of my desert island recordings and a favorite among many jazz musicians.

Although Vince has recorded other collaborative sessions since then that are superb, such as his work with Bjork (Selma Songs & Vespertine), Joni Mitchell (Both Sides Now & Travelogue), Elvis Costello (My Flame Burns Blue) and others, I have been waiting for a follow up album of his own compositions that could complement his beloved Epiphany.

The wait is over! A couple weeks ago Vince released Nights on Earth, a new collection of his compositions complete with an eclectic cast of amazing artists and a vast canvas of Mendoza enriched musical motifs. I had the good fortune of talking to Vince Mendoza about the new album, his influences and overall approach to composing and it should come as no surprise that his responses are as compelling as his work.

If you had to describe your composing style to someone unfamiliar with your work how would you define it?
[Vince Mendoza] My composing style is most closely related to my beginnings as a musician. I grew up listening to the radio, and playing standard tunes with my mother at the piano. So much of what I think about when writing has to do with writing melody, thinking about grooves and a honest connection to the music. And then the rest of course reflects my influences from music I have head over the years from all over the globe. But it all comes down to melodies and grooves.

In terms of composers, who are a few of your main influences and why?
I often say that all I need to know about music comes from JS Bach and Louis Armstrong. They both have mathematic perfection combined with the spontaneity and soul that can only come from the Divine. Louis never plays a bad note and his time is impeccable. Always in the right place. And he plays what he sings. And everyone after him sang what he played. It doesn't matter what instrument plays Bach's music, it is always glorious. And all the parts fit together perfectly. I can't leave out Stravinsky and Joe Zawinul. They have more in common than you think. Their composition style was organic, improvisational and believe it or not, groove based. Brahms and Alban Berg for their romanticism. Don't forget the melody.

Your music always works (emotionally & musically) whether it is performed in a trio or small group setting or a large ensemble or orchestral environment. Is this something that you have intentionally worked on over the years or what?  
I don't worry about working with different groups with regard to the technical aspects, as they are all just instruments of one's creativity, and after a while one becomes experienced working with them. The orchestra or the big band are just ensembles of individual musicians all playing their parts. However over the years I have become accustomed to deciding what material would work the best in a particular context. With Nights on Earth the music came about without the knowledge of how it would be ultimately realized. The decisions about "who will play what" came later, and arguably it helped me not to think to closely about the ultimate setting of the composition while it was in its first stages, but to let the ideas flow freely.

Nights on Earth is a brilliantly eclectic recording.  Can you tells us about the importance of keeping your music varied in terms of instrumentation, style and genre?
A contemporary musician should never get bogged down in these details, as you run the risk of losing your individual stamp. I'm not interested in the "3 faces of Vince". However, none of us live in a bubble and in 2012 musicians are constantly being exposed to (and hopefully inspired by) so many different styles of music. The key for me is deciding how these influences will fit into my own personal voice. I think that comes from spending enough time with different genres, becoming familiar with the language enough to feel comfortable playing inside it.

Having said that I think there are many types of music that I love that I KNOW I won't understand enough to live inside them. I can spend my life studying Flamenco music and still have so much to learn. However there are some elements of this music that I feel comfortable putting into my own language.

Your recordings feature an incredible cast of amazing musicians all of whom are featured throughout your compositions and Nights On Earth is no different.  Do you compose pieces with specific artists in mind?
Of course, writing for soloists is a big part of the discipline of jazz and I have done this in the past, especially when writing songs for soloists like John Abercombie and Mike Brecker. I can hear their sound in my head when I write. Nights on Earth was intentionally less "conceptual" than some of the commissioned recordings I have made in the past, like Blauklang or Sketches. My aim this time was to freely compose the themes and to decide later how they were to be realized, possibly to make it a bit less like an assignment and more like a process. And in a way it made me freer to make some discoveries and avoid replicating patterns from past recordings. This is particularly true in the more classical oriented pieces "Lullaby" and "Poem of the Moon", both of which have fairly organic forms.

The music featured on Nights on Earth feels a bit more intimate and personal in overall tone compared to your previous recordings.  Can you share a little backstory about each tune with us?
Well, I think Nights on Earth is my most personal recording to date. I have been quite lucky to associate with some of the greatest players and singers in music today, and am extremely grateful. They have indelibly affected my approach to composing. And they have become close friends. The players on this recording have been an integral part of my life as a person as well as a musician. And I cannot overstate how important the love and support of my family has been over the years. Losing my parents a few years ago was a big jolt to my psyche, and it was ever more important to me to get back to being a composer and expressing myself in a personal way.

"Otoño" was the first piece I wrote after losing my father. He was Mexican, but a big fan of everything Spanish, i.e. Art, Music, food. Originally "Otoño" was written as a free form lyrical piece, but later I had the idea to make it more like a classic Spanish "tangos" rhythm with the palmas, cajon and voice. These elements were quite an afterthought, but seemed to propel the track all the way through. We recorded the Spanish elements in Paris. And then there is an organ solo which is something you don't always hear on a flamenco tune.

"Poem of the Moon" is the only long form piece on the recording, and it is organic in its construction. You won't hear the beginning motives later in the piece, and one idea leads to another. There is a Bach inspired element to the second half of the piece, but the beginning needs to have the blues. We recorded the basic tracks in New York with Ambrose Akinmusire playing the trumpet part. He got it. So did the rest of the band. Much of the orchestration was written after the basic track recording. It was important for me to see what the band was going to do before I put the orchestra in there. This is a change from the way I usually put pieces together.

"Ao Mar" - The themes for this piece came a few years back. It was originally written for Mike Brecker. But that was the year he got sick, so the gig was cancelled. He never got to play it, but I will always think of him when I hear it. The song existed as an instrumental, but for this recording I really wanted to embrace the Brazilian elements of the song, in particular the rhythm section feel and inflection of the melody. Luciana wrote some beautiful lyrics.

"Conchita" was written for nobody in particular and starts on the 4th beat, in case you are trying to figure it out.

"The Stars You Saw" - When I was traveling a lot in my mid 20s I didn't get to talk a whole lot with my mother, so I would write to her often, especially on airplanes. Once I wrote to her from an airplane flying over the arctic circle relating to her how beautiful I thought the night sky was from my vantage point. I forgot about the letter I wrote thinking that it didn't make much of an impact with her. However, not too long after my return from the trip I got a card from her with a beautiful painting of the night sky and her remarks "Were these the stars you saw?". That's what this song is about. I love Joe Lovano's solo at the end of the piece. I rewrote the orchestra parts to embrace the sky at the end of this song.

"Addio" is for my late grandmother who encouraged me to write melody. She also liked the accordion. "Addio" was pretty much an improvisation orchestrated for the bandoneon and string quintet. We recorded it in New York with Argentinean bandoneon wiz Hector del Curto.

"Shekere" was recorded in Paris with some of my favorite musicians. Karim Ziad and Rhani Krija are the life's blood of this song. When I wrote it I thought that perhaps there should be a vocal. I had no idea how it was going to turn out. Tom Diakite brought in some lyrics and we talked about the vibe of the piece. He played Kora on the track, and beautifully placed his vocal. I love his improvisation at the end. Nguyen Le's solo is formidable!

"Beauty and Sadness," "Everything Is You" and "The Night We Met" are romance songs, pure and simple. There is an unspoken feeling that I get when I hear them. I guess it is love.

"Gracias" was the song that crystallized the feeling of the record for me - lyricism, peace. I had some conversations with Luis Conte about the meaning of the Bata in Santeria Rituals, and how Western Catholicism and African culture really come together in these rituals. The Bata is usually played by 2 or 3 people, but in this case Luis tied the drums up together to play them all at once. I can't be more grateful than to have such wonderful musicians realizing my music. Gracias. And John Scofield's solo? Muchas Gracias.

"Lullaby" existed in a few different forms before this one, as a vocal piece, bass solo, cello solo, and finally in its form as a duo on Nights on Earth. It was a great opportunity to write in a chamber music setting, leaving space for the bandoneon to improvise.

Recommended:
Vince Mendoza
Jazz Online - The Voice of Jazz