Vince Mendoza & the WDR Big Band Cologne: Homecoming (Sunnyside)

Review of album by the renowned arranger with the 19-piece WDR Big Band Cologne

Cover of Vince Mendoza & WDR Big Band album Homecoming
Cover of Vince Mendoza & WDR Big Band album Homecoming

The relationship between composer/conductor Vince Mendoza and Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln stretches back decades, but this album, recorded at two concerts in Germany in 2014, documents the first time Mendoza had written all-new material specifically for the radio station’s big band. That he was named the ensemble’s composer-in-residence two years later suggests that they liked what he came up with here. It’s a safe bet that just about anyone who enjoys the sound of a jazz orchestra will feel similarly.

If you’re already familiar with Mendoza’s approach, you’ll be pleased but not all that surprised by Homecoming. Although his pieces tend to be rooted in ostinatos and largely static grooves, the melodies growing from those roots rarely repeat themselves. The music evolves gradually and often dramatically, piling on multiple layers of harmonic complexity. On the opening “Keep It Up,” dense brass chords lend an ominous air to what otherwise would have been a standard-issue midtempo funk beat. The wistful, almost ragtime-y piano line that underpins “Little Voice” is transformed by sudden reed washes that evoke sunbeams burning through an overcast sky.

Every member of the 19-piece WDR band plays magnificently. The imaginative percussion work of Marcio Doctor and piercing trumpet playing of John Marshall warrant special praise, as does Johan Hörlén’s carefree soprano saxophone solo on “Amazonas.” But the musicians’ focus throughout is clearly not on individual performance. Their aim is to fully inhabit Mendoza’s compositions and the varied stylistic scenarios they meander into, from the mellow-hearted horn parts that give off faint aromas of ’70s polyester and shag carpeting on “Daybreak,” to the skeletal samba rhythm that sets off dizzily spiraling unison lines of flute and muted trumpet on “Choros #3.”

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Homecoming by Vince Mendoza & the WDR Big Band Cologne on iTunes.

Read Josef Woodard’s feature on jazz arrangers – including Vince Mendoza – from the JazzTimes archive.

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.