Vince Mendoza - Orchestrating fine weather
Vince Mendoza is in the unusual position of envying a piece of music. The Los Angeles-based composer and arranger whose orchestrations have featured in the work of Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Sting, Elvis Costello and Robbie Williams, to name but a few of his admirers, is among the high level team contributing to the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s next project, a celebration of jazz-rock pioneers Weather Report.
Partly due to the esteem in which he holds SNJO director Tommy Smith but also because he wanted his arrangement of Weather Report’s Night Passage to be played, rather than sit on the shelf, Mendoza waived his arranger’s fee for the piece. But having worked in Scotland once before, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 2004, and fallen in love with the country in general and Edinburgh in particular, he’s wishing he could have brought the score with him instead of mailing it.
He might still get his wish if one of our jazz festivals can pick up the band he’s forming to perform the music from his latest album, the beautiful Nights on Earth, which ends a thirteen-year hiatus for Mendoza the composer. During that time he was far from idle: he won Grammys for his arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now and Travelogue albums, crossed the Atlantic regularly in his capacity as conductor of the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands and among other activities far too many to list here, he continued a working relationship with Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul that began in 1984 and ended with the album Brown Street, another Grammy provider for Mendoza, which was released shortly before Zawinul’s death in 2007.
“I wanted to get back to being the composer, the person who makes all the decisions,” he says of Nights on Earth, which brings together a cast including guitarist John Scofield (who is in stunning form), SNJO’s imminent guest, former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine, the marvellous Brazilian singer Luciana Souza and Malian singer and kora player Tom Diakite. “I love the challenge of arranging other people’s songs but there’s always the question of how much of myself do I put into an arrangement whereas when you’re the composer, you put all of yourself into the music. You decide how it should be done, what colours to use, what musicians to hire. It’s like being a film director. If you think of any great movie, imagine how it might have changed if a different cast had been involved.”
The Connecticut-born Mendoza fell into being an arranger. Word got round the music business, he says, that he could do it. It was never his intention to become orchestrator to the stars, although he concedes that he rather set himself up to be a “back room guy” as he learned the ways of the recording studio by writing jingles and organising bands on recordings while still studying at Ohio State University. Already proficient on guitar, he learned piano and trumpet while a student, played in the university jazz ensemble and led his own big band, honing composing skills that would serve him well during a period as guest composer-conductor with the WDR Big Band in Cologne.
Having graduated with a degree in music composition from Ohio in 1983, he moved to Los Angeles to continue studies in composition at the University of Southern California and was soon active on the music scene there, writing music for Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Michael Brecker, supplying arrangements for Zawinul, Randy Brecker and Peter Erskine, and signing a recording contract with legendary jazz label Blue Note Records.
“I was lucky because I’d learned a lot of skills that you need in recording studios in a medium-sized city, in an environment that was far less busy, far less pressurised than the situation you’ll find yourself in here in Los Angeles,” he says. “Here, everything has to happen immediately so if you’re not sure of yourself, it’s going to be stressful. I was able to write pop music from my days writing jingles and I could orchestrate for studio musicians, so I fitted in relatively easily.”
It was while he was working with Bjork in London that he got the call to arrange Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Originally intended to hark back to the golden era of jazz big bands, a setting Mendoza could easily have provided, with its songs from the Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra repertoires, it was steered towards its full orchestral conception by Mendoza’s experiences with Bjork, or more accurately the orchestra he was given to work with in London.
“I called Joni’s producer, her ex-husband Larry Klein, and told him about this beautiful sounding orchestra and he was able to convince Joni that we should do the album in London and forget about the big band idea,” says Mendoza. “I already knew the two Joni songs we were going to do, Both Sides Now and A Case of You, which was a blessing and a curse because, I mean, what are you going to do with songs that are already perfect?”
He needn’t have worried as Mitchell was so impressed with the orchestrations he did of those songs and the jazz standards that made up the bulk of Both Sides Now that she asked him to work on her next album, a re-evaluation of her own songbook, Travelogue.
“That was scary and at the same time really exciting,” he says. “Working with songs where the poetry of the lyrics is so important, especially when you have the songwriter in the studio with you, was akin to being the jeweller who is reworking precious stones – with the owner of these stones looking over your shoulder. I really had to go back to Joni school for that one and find a way of painting the lyrics properly because as the arranger you have so much control over what the song means to the listener, and you don’t want to get these jewels of twentieth century songwriting wrong. In the end it was fine because my first priority was the lyric and I think Joni heard that in my work. She’s always been open to interpretation because she’s always changing herself; she has the spirit of a jazz musician.”
Working with Joe Zawinul was a different kind of thrill as the Viennese co-leader of Weather Report had had a huge influence, not just on Mendoza’s composing, but also on what he perceived jazz to be all about. Whereas Mitchell, through producer Larry Klein, had given Mendoza a lot of freedom, Zawinul was much more specific about what should be included in an arrangement and often insisted that the improvisations that had developed from playing a piece in concert were now part of the composition.
“I learned a lot from Joe over the thirty-plus years I knew him,” says Mendoza. “And I must have done something right because the arrangement of Night Passage that the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is going to play actually started life as part of a tribute to Joe that he didn’t know about and it ended up being included on his Brown Street album. So that’s a fairly definite seal of approval.”
With a workload that will keep him busy between now and the summer, Mendoza probably couldn’t fit in a visit to Scotland anyway to hear SNJO playing his arrangement of Night Passage. These days he prefers the wider palette that writing and arranging for an orchestra offers compared to a jazz big band, although the group that tours the Nights on Earth music will necessarily be much smaller scale. He still, however, holds big bands close to his heart.
“The jazz big band was a crucial part of my music education and it was the vehicle that allowed me to make my early musical statements,” he says. “I love the power and the capability of a really good big band to play rhythmical music together and make an exciting sound. Even with all the technology that’s come into the music industry over the past few decades, I don’t think the physical appeal of sixteen, seventeen musicians making great music on the bandstand is going to disappear any time soon.”
Vince Mendoza’s Nights on Earth is available now on Art of Groove Records.
From The Herald, December 28, 2011.