Think way back to when you were dating and things seemed to be going well and then suddenly your date blurted something, probably something trivial like “I loved Cancun but why can’t they speak American?” or “ I really like country music,” something that you knew you could never un-hear. Of course, you were still going to try to sleep with her but you knew there was now no other end game. Some things cannot be overlooked. Conversely, think about a different, happier outcome with someone else where you got to the fifth or sixth evening together and despite that much time together, that much exposure, there were no missteps, no gaffes, no violations of your world view. A relationship beckoned…
That is how I feel about composer and arranger Vince Mendoza. I have spent countless hours now listening to his work, daring him to reveal himself as capable of a misstep, an overreach, something even marginally cheesy. But no,…nada…nyet. He is a great arranger and composer and I am crushing hard even as I try to catch up with his catalog. The music is jazzy, it is complex, it is symphonic, it overflows
with rhythm and melody. It is wonderful.
Picture this: it is very late and I am goofing around in YouTube looking at the very earliest Weather Report videos I can find; Alphonse Mouson on drums and Miroslav Vitous on double bass joining Wayne Shorter and Joe Zavinul. 1972 and it is pretty great. One vid spawns another and somehow I am now watching an entire Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra, some 60 pieces, blasting a later Weather Report tune, “Nubian Sundance”, from their Mysterious Traveler CD. An entire orchestra? But it is freaking fabulous and authentically great. I say authentic not only because three Weather Report alums are playing in the orchestra – Peter Erskine on drums, Alex Acuna on Percussion, and Victor Bailey on bass – but authentic because it sounds like Weather Report only with 60 members. Percusso rhythms on the bottom with all kinds of melodic lines in solo and counterpoint, strings, horns, keyboards in perfectly interweaving arrangements all led by a thin, unassuming dark haired conductor, my new main squeeze, Vince Mendoza.
One thing leads to another and I quickly start to inhale all the videos and then the CDs. It also dawns on me that I knew a little of Vincent Mendoza through the wonderful Joni Mitchell re-recordings of her work with orchestra on Travelogue and Both Sides Now. I actually bought those CDs because of how lyrical and lush the orchestrations were as Joni’s voice was not nearly the instrument that it had been on the originals. But the symphonic stuff just killed me – that was my boy Vince.
Fast City is the CD of the Weather Report tunes recorded live by the Metropole Orchestra with the aforementioned alums. It is actually a tribute to Joe Zavinul and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Dense, swinging, and dangerous, it is a thing to behold. The Metropole Orchestra gets it; understanding the subtleties of the music, they never err as individual soloists or as an entire orchestra in trying to sound “rock,” “jazz,” or “modern hip.” Amazingly, they do not fault. They don’t step on the white line. They don’t ask about speaking American in a foreign country. They are impeccable.
I learn that this is not a single lucky evening for them but that it carries over to all their recent recordings. The next one I fixated on was Regencia: A Night with Ivan Lin which I also listened to absolutely non-stop. Lin is a Brazilian singer – composer, famous-famous in South America who you might have heard second hand because Sting, The New York Voices and a ton more have covered his tunes. His recording with the Metropole Orchestra and Vince Mendoza is equally fabulous and addictive.
The Metropole Orchestra is the nationally funded Orchestra of the Netherlands, sometimes called a jazz orchestra, sometimes it is spelled Metropole Orkestre (oh, those Dutch) and has been around for decades. Vince Mendoza was the director from 2005 through 2013. They also have several great tunes of the Orkestre with Pat Metheny on YouTube that are spellbinding. Not to beat this into the ground but it really sounds like the Pat Metheny group that has effortlessly and organically expanded by a factor of ten.
Most of Vince Mendoza’s discography is under his own name, mostly large orchestra recordings like the CD Epiphany recorded with the London Symphony (again with the great jazz drummer, Peter Erskine) which is kicking my ass right now. Over the last week I have literally been alternating Epiphany with the Vince Mendoza CD Phoenix by the DR Jazz Orchestra, back and forth, A-B, A-B, playing them non-stop.
The reason you can actually do this is simple: there is so much music, so much melody, so much enjoyable complexity within these albums that it can still sound new, you are not even close to having it memorized. It is also flawless execution with no missteps, no duff moments, no tenor sax clichés, no fake rock beats from a symphony guy – it is beautiful and encased in pure melody.
Admittedly I have always liked tasteful strings on jazz and pop records. This goes all the way back to Nelson Riddle’s still way cool “Route 66.” That tune would have been nothing without the strings which is obviously why Nelson has them front and center. But there are not a lot of good examples of cool strings over some swinging bass line – they usually sound forced or pasted on. By the way, if you have not heard “Route 66” lately do yourself a favor and spend 99 cents on I-Tunes and download it. It is right up there with the “Theme from Goldfinger” and “Peter Gun” as the top evocative instrumental hits of pre- British invasion 1960’s.
Melody is everything to me. Tone is negotiable meaning that a great melody can still be wrung out of Soft Machine’s Lowrey organ with a fuzz tone or a Fender Stratocaster distorting out on Jimi’s “Third Stone from the Sun.” But I will also listen to what you might deem as “crap likely” just for the melodies: the Carpenters, Beach Boys, some of the hits from Bread, even Spanky and our Gang come to mind. Moving to higher quality but still MOR (middle of the road) -through my wife’s influence- I have become a big fan of the entire works of Burt Bacharach. I admit to taking some pride in having my IPOD Shuffle go from Sun RA to “Walk on By” to Steve Reich to “The Look of Love” to Imogene Heap to Magma. Again, the common denominator is melody… as in I would like to hear some.
Whether you have noticed it or not, melody and the quality of melody in popular music – meaning any widely heard music- is under siege. Forget the War on Christmas this shit is actually happening. Part of it is the Whitney Houston – Mariah Carey horror show vocal style where the melody is sung maybe once and from there it is the increasing annoying and escalating undulations and runs that become the whole piece. That is part of it. I am sure there are other factors not the least of which is that memorable, pleasurable melodies are very hard to write and no one seems to be trying too hard.
Twenty minutes of listening to a random sample of current tunes spat out by American Idol hopefuls does nothing to dissuade, trust me.
That is why I am so happy to have stumbled on the work of Vince Mendoza as well as the freakishly awesome Metropole Orchestra. Do yourself a favor and start with these or at least go to iTunes and preview them:
Fast City – Vince Mendoza with several ex-Weather Reporters and the Metropole Orchestra pay tribute to Weather Report co-founder and composer Joe Zavinul
Epiphany by Vince Mendoza – jazzy orchestra – great compositions and soloing
Regencia: A Night with Ivan Lin – Vince Mendoza conducting the Metropole Orchestra with the very charming Brazilian superstar composer and vocalist, Ivan Lin.
Phoenix by Vince Mendoza and the DR Jazz Orchestra …do not think “big band” and what that might dredge up for you, do think modern orchestra voicings for reeds and horns with great compositions by Vince Mendoza.
54 – Vince Mendoza directs the Metropole Orchestra featuring star guitarist John Scofield.
Seriously, do it now.