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.”