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Vince Mendoza: Back to the World

Making a political statement—with a rapper and a full orchestra—is the most unexpected move in this composer and arranger’s distinguished career

Vince Mendoza and Terence Blanchard
Mendoza with soloist Terence Blanchard at the 2011 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo courtesy of Monterey Jazz Festival)

For all of the work he’s done with others, it’s still the albums Mendoza has made as a leader that are his most intriguing. Looking back at early solo releases like 1990’s somber Start Here (with its elegant French-horn sound straight out of Philly) and 1991’s intricate Instructions Inside, we joke as to whether or not Mendoza “nailed it” on them. “Are you trying to say I didn’t?” he laughs. “I think that I nailed each for where I was at that time. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t do the nuts and bolts of their writing differently or change the structure somewhat. I tell everyone from young musicians I play with to students I teach: When it comes to making a first record, it sounds simple, but make sure you have something to say, and in a very organized way. I believe I did—I had already been writing ensemble music, had a voice and a particular way of saying things that made me know that I was strong enough to start. I only wish I had a better time making it, as my first album featured some of the greatest musicians on the planet, and I was just so serious about getting it done properly. I never stopped then to realize just how amazing those players were and enjoying the moment.”

For pure enjoyment’s sake, there is the Vince Mendoza/Arif Mardin Project’s Jazzpaña with the WDR Big Band from 1992, an album where Mendoza’s deep love of flamenco had a place to land. “Although I studied classical guitar and Spanish guitar music, I didn’t know anything, really, about flamenco except that I loved it,” he says. “With this, going forward with the WDR, I continued to try to figure out how it all worked.”

His mention of the WDR, based in Cologne, Germany, brings up a significant point: This American composer of American music sure spends a lot of time working with European ensembles, from the WDR and CNSO to the Dutch Metropole Orkest and the Berlin Philharmonic. “The first group I worked with in Europe, in the late ’80s, was the WDR,” he explains. “I was invited to arrange the music of Joe Zawinul, then stayed to do concerts of my own music. To this day, I have this relationship, as I’m working on another new project with them starting this June. The thing about that group, similar to the Metropole Orkest [of which he was chief conductor from 2005 to 2013], is that they have dedicated seasons to projects of music they truly love and believe in. These European ensembles provide music for the radio that they find interesting, that will engage listeners, and reflect their aesthetic vision. That’s how they survived any political turmoil.” 

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Speaking of political turmoil: The music that Mendoza writes has always looked inward, but on Freedom Over Everything, that vision turns itself inside out. Being interested in and inspired by the politics of the moment is a recent phenomenon for the composer. “I’ve always been interested in history, but that’s never linked up with my music. Until I started working on this record. Suddenly, I couldn’t separate what I was feeling and thinking from what I was composing and playing. Daily occurrences were affecting my creative process. It just happened. Where once I could separate the two things, suddenly it became time to pay attention to what was going on out there, and if I could somehow share my point of view through music—to put some light into the current situation.”

Mendoza points out that the fifth movement of his concerto nods to Dr. Cornel West in lines such as “The blues responds to the catastrophic with compassion, without drinking from the cup of bitterness.”

“West is a big jazz and R&B fan, and a lot of what he writes and lectures on deeply resonates for me,” says Mendoza, who wrote to West during the preparatory run-up to Freedom Over Everything. They talked about African American poets, critics, and other literary source material: Amiri Baraka’s writing on jazz, Lucille Clifton, Andra Lord, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston. As for the piece that follows the “Concerto for Orchestra” on the album, “To the Edge of Longing,” Mendoza turned to the work of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “I was looking for something that would have a seed of basic humanity,” he says. “After the difficult road of the ‘Concerto,’ I needed to have something that would send us off in an optimistic, encouraging way, to go out, create, and live life. And I found that in Rilke and The Book of Hours [originally published in 1905].” Operatic soprano Julia Bullock, whose reference came from trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard, handles the duty of singing Rilke’s words (in English translation).

Antonio Sánchez—no stranger himself to socially conscious jazz (see his Bad Hombre and Lines in the Sand albums)—says, “It’s a cleansing process for any artist to bring all those negative feelings to the forefront of his or her work and transform them into something with beauty and purpose. That’s exactly what Vince so masterfully did with this album.”

The concerto, he further notes, “didn’t really have a drummer in it. I think it was [originally written for] several percussion players doing different parts, so I had to come up with a composite that would make it groove and gel as much as possible. But one thing is to practice it to the recording and another one is when you’re in the middle of that big orchestra, so naturally I had to adapt to what the moment required.”

Sánchez expresses his utmost admiration for Mendoza the conductor in such situations: “He doesn’t miss anything, and he also has a very calming and reassuring demeanor that makes everybody feel comfortable and relaxed … unless you’re not coming up with the goods. Then he has no qualms about calling you out, but always in a very diplomatic way.”

You could call it diplomacy of a sort, but Mendoza refuses to connect the dots between the past jazz protestations of Roach, Shepp, Marsalis, et al., and his own. “I approach my subject matter with great humility,” he states. “I can say that I am expressing my reaction. Projects such as the ones you mentioned, as well as the music of Gil Scott-Heron or John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ … I am not aspiring to make protest jazz, even if there are parallels.”

One thing’s for sure: Freedom Over Everything marks a seismic shift even from the albums that immediately preceded it, 2017’s Homecoming and 2011’s Nights on Earth, and Mendoza doesn’t foresee a return to their sound any time soon. “Nights on Earth was quasi-autobiographical, and I was glad to tell that story of my personal journey, with songs representing different people and different occurrences in my life. But this new one has greater purpose for me. It also took two years to make—so it was difficult and different.

“I won’t be able to go back,” he acknowledges. “Freedom Over Everything has changed me. Changed the game.”