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Arranger Vince Mendoza: Making connections with the musicians

Vince Mendoza
Reinout Bos
Vince Mendoza

Any time you hear a memorable piece of music from a big band or an orchestra, standing behind it is the arranger/composer. Vince Mendoza has been standing behind, and as conductor in front of, both the Metropole Orkest and Cologne, Germany's WDR Big Band for decades. He has won more than a few Grammy awards for his work and was about to receive another when we spoke at length about his amazing career. Enjoy our conversation and be sure to go all the way through it—that's where you'll find out what Vince would like to sit behind every day.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Brian Delp: Well, first of all, we are the station for the jazz capital of the world. And I do know that you have lived in Los Angeles for quite a number of years, but that you also listen to us on a regular basis and that really makes us all very happy.

Vince Mendoza: I do and I have to say that my origins are from right up the road there in Connecticut. I spent quite a bit of time in New York and of course during the times that I made recordings in New York, I loved being there in the studios with the musicians and the jazz scene in New York. It’s still the center of the world.

Now I know that the Grammy Awards are coming up this weekend and after carefully checking the list, I noticed that you again have another nomination. How many nominations does this make for you?

I think it's something like 37, something like that.

But I also notice, and I'm sure people will agree with me, that it must be a bittersweet nomination considering that you're nominated for arranging “Songbird” for the wonderful Christine McVie who passed last November just after your birthday.

It was done quite a while ago, this track. I was asked by Glyn Johns to work with him on this reissue that they made of Christine's music. The one track that they wanted to rerecord was an arrangement of songbird using her original voice from the Rumors album from 1978 and for me to write around that track with the vocals. We were graced with her presence in the studio. It was really wonderful to be able to finally meet her and express my appreciation for so many years of beautiful music. And particularly that song.

You're talking about a voice that you and I both grew up with, we being of a similar age. You have worked with so many incredible legends as an arranger and composer for the last three or four decades. The list is just wild. Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, and too many to name actually. How was it working with Christine?

Christine was beautiful. I didn't really talk to her all of that much in the writing process. Glyn pretty much set me loose on the track. I didn't see her until she came to the studio when we recorded it with the orchestra, so we didn't have too much of the time to spend together. But I think she was very generous to let me do what I wanted to do with the track. And of course, I've been living with this song since 1978. Fleetwood Mac has been our friends since then. To be able to work on this song and put my stamp on it was a really great gift.

Well, good luck on Sunday. I know the competition is always very stiff, but, speaking of which, you actually have on your new album Olympians one of the people who is nominated for Best Jazz Vocalist this year, and that's the angelic Cecil McLorin Salvant.

Angelic is right. Indeed I do.

My wife and I just spent time with her on board the Blue Note at Sea cruise in the Caribbean a couple of weeks ago. She's just outstanding. She's not only a great artist, but just a genuine, warm and giving person. I'm sure you had a similar experience working with her.

She's a truly amazing talent and I've worked with her a couple of times with the Metropole Orkest. We've gotten to know each other. I've gotten to see how broad-based her talent is besides the music—her visual art, the needlepoint, the drawing, and everything that she does. Everything she wears is centered toward her interest in art and creativity. To be able to work on this particular piece that had lyrics written by Norma Winstone of a piece that I wrote several years ago. She loved Norma's work with John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler, and she wanted to jump in on the song. Her approach to it is very special. I love the way that she really takes the lyric and the song and the stories seriously. You could tell by her duet work with Sullivan and her recordings that the stories and the lyrics really mean a lot, and she brings you into a story in a very meaningful way.

She's not the only great voice that is on your new album Olympians. Also, you have someone who's actually probably won more Grammys than you: Dianne Reeves.  

Dianne is singing a version of this song of mine called “Esperanto” that appeared as an instrumental many years ago. Kurt Elling wrote lyrics to it quite a while ago and recorded it on his Live in Chicago album and subsequently it has been recorded by a few artists. I really wanted to include this piece on the record, because I felt the power of the orchestra combined with Dianne's message that she gives us in everything that she sings, we sit up and listen to what she's trying to tell us.

Dianne Reeves Vince Mendoza
Rick Swig
Dianne Reeves with Vince Mendoza

She has a voice you have to pay attention to.

I was so lucky to be able to have her on this record. I'm very grateful for the beautiful reading of the lyric that she gave. It's quite a powerful track and it's out there now for people to hear if they want to hear “Esperanto.”  

You go back with the Metropole Orkest 28 years now?

Yes, I started with the orchestra in 1995. Of course, they started in 1945 and went through several conductors and visions and paths. I arrived there in 1995 and became the chief conductor in 2005 for nine seasons. We did a lot of recordings and got them out on stage and thinking about touring. They’ve really become this international name now. Everybody knows the Metropole Orkest. We’ve had quite a few amazing guests over the years and some of them are on this record.

Not Al Jarreau, of course. That was a number of years ago. But that is one of their greatest live recordings, I think.

Yes, that was a really enjoyable record to make. Al was wonderful and we were able to do renditions of some of his hits. We did quite a few shows with him during that time. I have to say that all of the record is live with the orchestra, which is another testament to how amazing they are on stage. It’s like fire hitting the stage whenever they play.

I've been announcing selections from the Metropole Orkest, many of them conducted by you, but not necessarily all of them. But the one appellation I give to the Metropole Orkest every time I put them on the air is “The orchestra that can play absolutely anything, anytime, anywhere.” They have that incredible versatility, and I'm sure that it serves your music well because you combine so many different influences into every single one of your compositions. Can you tell us how that comes about?

Well, it took a while, I have to say. Going into the orchestra I had many years of experience of listening and writing different styles and trying to figure out how to get people to play them. The orchestra has always been very open to the challenge and enthusiastic about learning new things. Over the years we've really gotten to the point that the orchestra's comfortable in playing in a lot of different languages. They can play straight ahead music, but also they're playing funk and working with rappers and Brazilian music. We won the Latin Grammy many years ago for Ivan Lins, the best popular music recording played by a Dutch orchestra. It’s wild. They're quite comfortable and versatile with so many different types of music. It takes the understanding and patience and enthusiasm of an orchestra to really get into why particular music sounds the way it does, and how can we get it to be like that. That's a testament to their broad-based enthusiasm and skill.

You also have, besides the presence of Dianne Reeves and Cecile McLorin Salvant, a couple of terrific saxophone players from the States, not that you don't have a fantastic saxophone player in the Metropole Orkest, who is Marc Scholten.

Yes, and Paul van der Feen and Leo Janssen. There are quite a few really great sax soloists in the orchestra, but we decided to invite a couple of other players from the States. Chris Potter plays on an arrangement of “Barcelona.” David Binney, formally a New York resident, moved back to LA and put together a scene there. He had actually been playing a lot with my son Luca, who's a keyboard player in LA and they've been working together. I've gotten to know Dave over the years and we gave him an opportunity to catch fire on the recording as well.

Oh, he knows all about catching fire. I've seen David Binney play here. I'm sure he lost none of that, despite the mellow, laid back atmosphere of where you live now.

Well, we have the fire burning inside of us. We may seem mellow, but we're not.

Now with the Metropole Orkest, you're doing one particular thing, but you're also noted for leading the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany for a number of years. How long have you been associated with the WDR?

Longer. I started with the WDR around 1990, but my music was being played before that with Joe Zawinul, who invited me to write some music for them. Then they invited me to join them in the studio. We've done many recordings together in Cologne. We just finished one with Raul Midon in December. They're also a terrific band. They have a very particular sound and way of recording.

 Vince Mendoza conducting the Metropole Orkest
Reinout Bos
Vince Mendoza conducting the Metropole Orkest

What is the difference between working with the Metropole Orkest and working with the WDR Big Band?

Jazz is a very personal art form. Jazz composers write from the perspective of the player. Ellington is a perfect example of that. When we're writing for particular people, they realize your music in a very personal way. The WDR band has a very particular sound to them by virtue of the players. And, Metropole has another sound. Of course, they’re an orchestra with strings and percussion and harp and orchestral woodwinds and all of that. They have another type of a palette, but we are still talking about personal experience of musicians, the people that contribute to our music. The WDR has their own particular sound to them. Not to mention the studios, the people who record them. There is a particular sound for those records and I think everybody notices that.

If I could take you back 30 or 40 years to that time when you were going to Ohio State University and then when you transferred out to USC, did you realize that this is what you wanted to do?

No. I can remember that I grew up listening to the radio. I grew up with a lot of R&B pop music, jazz on the radio, to the extent that they were playing jazz on AM radio in those days. For me the light went on with the Philadelphia soul sound, Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff and using orchestra instruments were the rhythm section—French horns, glockenspiel. Of course we heard it with Burt Bacharach's music on pop radio, but then to hear these funky rhythm sections and horn sections playing with glockenspiel and tympani and all of that, that's when the light went on for me. I want to do that. To be able to be in the studio making records, that was my vision. But I also loved movie music and I had aspirations to go to LA to write film music. But I got too busy working on records and traveling and that thing never really happened. To be honest, I'm glad that things happened the way they did. I made a lot of beautiful friends and musical connections and a shelf full of great memories.

Well, as I pointed out earlier, you and I are of a very similar age, and I've been doing this a long time. By the way, I have a great affinity for highly arranged selections. I've been airing them for 40 years. To  me, what you are to my particular generation is basically our Claus Ogerman or our Don Sebesky or our Oliver Nelson, even though Oliver didn't last that long They were all tremendous composers and arrangers who could actually be counted on to rise to whatever situation they were being put in. I think that this is what you're doing with not only your own albums with the WDR, with the Metropole Orkest, and with an all-star band with a Czech Philharmonic, which I believe you utilized on your last project. You're doing it in just that similar fashion. That's really not a question. I just wanted to get that out there.

Well, I appreciate that. They're all amazing writers that you just mentioned. And Oliver, of course, was also writing a lot of television and film music.

Right up until the day he died actually.

Not an easy job to have.

Can you honestly tell me that you think you chose an easier road with what you're doing, as opposed to riding for the big and small screens?

I think I did. I don't want to cast aspersions on media composers, but I think they feel it too that sometimes the amount of pressure that they feel to come up with something that may or may not be their vision but the vision of the director is sometimes a frustrating, feeling. The fact that any composer can come up with a great piece of music that sits on its own is a miracle. Of course it happens all the time and we have a huge library of great film music to speak to that. But I think that working on recordings and making connections with the musicians and with stories in a meaningful way that allow you to contribute a certain part of yourself is unique to this pursuit. I feel fortunate that I've been able to do it all of these years. I don't miss the pressure of writing for television or film. But I do welcome the camaraderie and the long friendships that I've developed with musicians that have played on these records.

Indeed, we're talking about relationships now that go back decades. The penultimate question because I don't want to keep you that long: When you're not sitting over score paper and writing music, I'm assuming that's the way you do it, what would you rather be doing? And where would you rather be doing it?

I don't think that I have very many things that I would rather be doing other than music. I have a lot of students, as you may know, a lot of composition students at the University of Southern California. So to the extent that I'm not writing music for my own projects, I’m thinking about their visions and projects and how they're doing it. But I can let you in on a secret. That I'm a ham radio enthusiast. In front of a microphone on the radio is something that I've always wanted to do ever since I was a kid.

You're talking to someone who does it every single day.

Whenever I step into a radio studio, I get really excited. We have the antenna over the house and the set is in the corner. When I have a minute, I get on the air.

When's the last time you talked to New Zealand or Kazakhstan?

New Zealand is available to me with my present direction of the antenna. Kazakhstan is a little far. I need to get an amplifier, some of my friends tell me.

See, that there is something we didn't know about Vince Mendoza.

A little tidbit for you all on the radio.

After the apocalypse, he's the guy you're gonna be talking to. Not me.

Come on over. I'll send some messages.

That was just illustrated in this new HBO show, The Last of Us. We saw this just the other night—the ham radio operator in Boston and a line of people down the hall waiting to send messages out.

When your iPhones stop working, my wire over the house is still in action.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brian Delp has been a member of WBGO’s on-air team for more than two decades, most-recently as the long-time host of Jazz After Hours. He has emceed at nearly every major jazz venue in the New York City area and hosted a portion of New York City’s City Parks Foundation’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival over several summers.