Jazz album review: “Freedom over everything” by Vince Mendoza
By Michael Ullman
There is a contrast here, an understandable impatience with current events placed alongside belief in MLK’s view of the long arc of the moral universe. Neither cancels the other.
Vince Mendoza and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra: Freedom over everything (Modern recordings)
It’s hard to write about the super versatile 60-year-old composer / arranger Vince Mendoza without making a long list. Among his many functions, he is the conductor of the Metropole Orkest: he won six Grammy Awards, including one for his arrangements on John Scofield’s 54, another for the arrangements on Joni Mitchell’s On both sides now. It has been nominated a dozen times. He has written for large orchestras and for the Turtle Island String Quartet, for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and for singers such as Elvis Costello, Melody Gardot, Chaka Khan and Sting. Mendoza also wrote the music for the World Cup closing ceremony. He started recording in the late 1980s, a time when he played the trumpet on a Peter Erskine record and the synthesizer on John Abercrombie’s record. Animato. He has been very, very busy ever since. Most recently he arranged the song by singer Gregory Porter Nat Cole and I and, in 2019, Fred Hersch Restart.
Mendoza’s new project is the political orientation Freedom over everything, a concerto that calls for a large orchestra: for example, half a dozen flutes and nine French horns are listed, although I doubt they all play at the same time. There are two additional pieces: “To the Edge of Longing”, with soprano Julia Bullock, and “New York Stories, ” described as a “Concertino for Trumpet and Orchestra” starring trumpeter Jan Hasenöhrl.
The notes describe the main piece as “the concerto for orchestra in five movements”. Nevertheless, the composition, as we have it here, is in six movements. In its middle, Black Thought delivers a piece of rap. Mendoza explains that the five-movement version was written in 2016: “There was so much discord in the country at that time. I was so moved by the confusion, anger and entropy in this country that I wanted the structure of this concerto to represent what was reflected in Dr. King’s quote: “The Arc of the Moral Universe is long but it leans towards justice. ‘I wanted the concerto to reflect that. With its alternation between a cheeky and brassy (even aggressive) writing and gently meditative movements (or moments in the movements), the concerto takes the form of a turn. But the composition’s message, and I imagine Mendoza’s earlier thoughts, are here interrupted by Black Thought’s rap:. “So there is a contrast, an understandable impatience with current events placed alongside belief in MLK’s long arc. Neither negates the other.
The orchestral concerto begins with a bang, a military-sounding brass band on snare drums which almost immediately gives way to a questioning violin solo. The movement is called American noise and it seems to move between two worlds. Gently wandering passages, usually featuring the strings, give way to occasional bursts of notes aggressively repeated in the high strings over eardrums and other muffled percussions. Around its sixth minute arrive four-four jazzy sections, a hint of blues. Soon the guitarist introduces a swinging melody which the orchestra takes up and plays. After this witty passage, the guitar returns with what I hear as an improvised solo. “Noise” is followed by “Consolation, ” with prominent parts for harp and bassoon. A simple theme is played in various textures and intensities: it looks like an orchestration study. “Hit the Streets” begins with a drum solo by Oleg Sokolov. The main theme of the movement is a fast melody piece. The orchestra keeps playing it, or at least suggesting it. The group maintains the melody even during a marimba solo, ultimately crushing the soloist. Here again, the orchestration is restless, the dynamics widely varied.
“Meditation” follows. It is made special by its soloist, saxophonist Joshua Redman, whose sweet lyricism is soothing. Yet it’s another piece that juxtaposes tranquility with great swells from its orchestral sound… another example of American noise. “Meditation” is followed by the dramatic and brassy “Justice and the Blues”, a composition that begins in an apparent restlessness that spans a wide sonic range (I think I hear a tuba) then settles into a melody. sustained that isn’t, to these ears, especially blues-y – until the backbeat appears near its end. The concerto continues with the rap “Freedom Over Everything”. Typical of Mendoza’s writing, a slight starting point becomes more and more dramatic as the finale is reached, suggesting a sort of reconciliation. But the possibility of the latter is called into question by the rap interlude.
That’s not all. “On the verge of desire, ” written on a translation of a poem by Rilke, is a beautifully lyrical piece that begins with a violin solo by Alexej Rosik. The piece highlights the changing orchestration I now associate with Mendoza, as well as beautiful and varied vocal writing. “New York Stories” is a piece that any classical trumpeter will want to play. Here Jan Hasenöhrl responds with agility to the orchestra’s programming of lyrical and nervous (urban) episodes.
Michael ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, University of Chicago and University of Michigan, from which he earned a doctorate in English. Author or co-author of two books on jazz, he wrote on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High fidelity, Stereophile, Boston phoenix, Boston Globe, and other places. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling and others have appeared in academic journals. For more than 20 years, he has written a bimonthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also criticizes classical music. At Tufts University he mainly teaches modernist writers in the English department and the history of jazz and blues in the music department. He does not play the piano well.