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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 with the CNSO
Vince Mendoza recording with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (photo: Jan Maly/Courtesy of CNSO)

In the fall of that notorious election year of 2016, six-time Grammy-winning arranger/composer Vince Mendoza was working on a commission from the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. The five-movement piece, called simply “Concerto for Orchestra,” was driven by how much his gut churned at the mere possibility that 45—not once in our interview does he use the name Trump—might win the presidency. “The temperature of America was shifting, and the music was a mostly emotional reaction to that,” Mendoza says of its soaring, shouting strings. “As I was putting the structure of the concerto together, it became more than an emotional and musical exercise. It was the realization that my music couldn’t be separated from what was happening in the world.”

October turned to November, and the dreaded possibility became reality. Mendoza’s musical response developed in real time. He began to think about other artists whose work embraced the winds of political change, good and bad. “In particular, Nina Simone’s quote about how artists must reflect their times—that got me. That’s when I really started making the structure of the piece reflect what I had hoped this cycle of noise, protest, eventual justice, and understanding would portray.”

With this concept in mind, the five movements were completed. Or so Mendoza thought. Years passed. The CNSO recorded the piece in July 2019, with help from saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Antonio Sánchez. But something still seemed to be missing in the final movement. A rap came to mind—something spoken, rhythmic, and righteous—that would offer a necessary punctuation, the answer to what the composer hoped to achieve. 

“Then,” Mendoza continues, “George Floyd happened, as did the reaction to George Floyd.” He had already been talking to rapper Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter, mouthpiece of the Roots, about creating a text for the final movement. Now, in the midst of a season of death and rage, the desired message of that text became clear: Freedom is life’s most important element. “Freedom over everything, for everybody, is what we should aspire to,” Mendoza says. “Even though Tarik’s rap offers no resolution—there is no resolution to our problems until everyone is free and safe.”

Freedom Over Everything is also the title of Mendoza’s latest album—his debut on the new Modern Recordings label—of which “Concerto for Orchestra” forms the centerpiece. Jazz with a social conscience is hardly new, of course; Max Roach’s We Insist!, Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America, and Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields all come to mind. But Freedom Over Everything is something different, a Copland-esque masterpiece as rich, varied, and literary in its tone, as well as in its defiance and historicity, as the equally epic trilogy of novels that make up John Dos Passos’ U.S.A.

“Just a look [at] Vince’s work shows his ability to deal with very different musical characters and genres,” says Modern Recordings’ owner/CEO Christian Kellersmann. “You can talk to him for hours about different styles and influences. No matter if it’s contemporary or vintage. This open-minded approach fits Modern. We like unexpected combinations.”

The composer himself happily notes that Freedom Over Everything started as a piece of music with a certain structural idea. “Then,” he adds, “things happen. Then other things happen. We change gears. Move left instead of right. Go through a groove that’s unknown and find another way.”

* * * *

That pretty much describes Mendoza’s life going all the way back to Norwalk, Connecticut, where he was raised, learning classical guitar, trumpet, and piano early on. From there he snagged a degree in music composition at Ohio State University, then completed post-grad composition/conducting studies at USC, with stints writing music for film and television within that time frame.

Before he gathered steam on any instrument’s technique, though, Mendoza was a preteen radio fanatic enthralled by the Sound of Philadelphia, Gamble & Huff and, in particular, songwriter/arranger Thom Bell. “The Spinners, the O’Jays, Harold Melvin—the whole scene that was Philly soul was where the light went on,” he says happily. “I wanted to write music that sounded like that. I wanted to be in the studio conducting the orchestra with the singers at their most harmonious. I wanted to be inside of that groove. I’m not thinking about the Berlin Philharmonic when I’m thinking of a glockenspiel, but rather Thom Bell.”

To this writer’s ear, much in Mendoza’s work also seems to stem from the masterful asymmetry of soundtrack composer Jerry Goldsmith, a man whose scores for Chinatown and Planet of the Apes are somehow evocative of a time and place that can’t be easily pinpointed. “You’re right on the money with Goldsmith, as he is my favorite of all Hollywood-pantheon film composers,” he says. “Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there was a connection between Goldsmith and Stravinsky and Bartók, composers I revered. But Jerry was a master of his art and his craft. That Planet of the Apes score is incredible, my go-to Goldsmith.” Another clear influence, Gil Evans, surprisingly didn’t become a thing for Mendoza until he’d gotten into arranging; for jazz ensemble writing, it was Henry Mancini (“all the way, from the time I was six listening to the Mancini ’67 record”) whose inspirational light shone the brightest.

The professional composer in Mendoza first came out while befriending kindred spirit Peter Erskine. He wrote for and with the Weather Report drummer on 1986’s Transition, their first of many recordings to come under each man’s name. From there, Mendoza’s compositions would quickly begin gracing albums by the likes of Joe Lovano, John Abercrombie, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Charlie Haden, and Kurt Elling.

“Musicians don’t live in a bubble,” he laughs. “We function and grow as part of a community. That’s the most beautiful part of it. We play with them once, and we’re friends forever. In regard to starting with Peter, he was the drummer in my head then, as a result of all he had done on those amazing Weather Report albums. Our relationship resonated with a shared language, and a similar approach to rhythm. Parenthetically, Joe [Zawinul] and Wayne [Shorter] were also voices in my head because of those same recordings. Through them, I learned that you could have one idea that inspired the next idea that inspired the next next idea. The idea of an A-B-A form—that boxy structure—suddenly went out the window.” To this day, Mendoza insists that using the question “What would Wayne do?” is often a way of answering his line-writing problems.

As for arranging, Mendoza picked up on that algebraic skill set after he’d already begun working on his own big-band compositions in the mid-’80s. “I didn’t seek out arranging. Somehow, when I started doing concerts with radio bands, in Europe in particular, our guests would come in and ask me to arrange something. I began a pattern of doing these arrangements that people must have liked, because I started getting calls to do the same for their records.”

That Mendoza arranged for jazz icons such as Zawinul and Return to Forever’s Al Di Meola as well as younger jazz contemporaries Mike Stern and Kyle Eastwood was one thing. To be invited to arrange for pop giants such as Joni Mitchell (2000’s Both Sides Now, which won Mendoza a Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist Grammy in 2001), Björk (2001’s Vespertine), and Elvis Costello (2006’s My Flame Burns Blue) was quite another. “Their interest in me always came from recordings that they had heard and liked,” he says. “Fortunately, they and their producers made the leap of faith that I would have the ability to step into their situation and be able to paint the picture they wanted to hang.”

Which brings us to the unusual case of Black Thought’s performance on Freedom Over Everything, in which the painting (Mendoza’s composition) had already been painted. “Unlike a soloist, [he’s] not changing the original track,” Mendoza notes. “This brings about a great question: What if you had recorded this together, or allow elements to change, just as what happened when instrumental improvisational solos came into view? Would the rap have been different? Would the music have been different? It is conceivable that if we were in the same room, Tarik might have chosen to do something different.” Expect an upcoming Mendoza project to explore these matters.