As a part of Jazzfuel interview series, we had the privilege of chatting with Metropole Orkest’s Vince Mendoza, the celebrated American composer, arranger, and conductor with a career spanning over three decades.
Mendoza has worked with some of the most iconic musicians in the industry, including Joni Mitchell, Sting, and Elvis Costello, among others.
His innovative arrangements and compositions have earned him numerous awards and accolades, including multiple Grammy Awards and a Latin Grammy Award.
You’ll find the full interview below, but first a couple of takeaways which resonated with us:
- Looking to get into the world of synchronisation? There are a lot of independent filmmakers all over the world nowadays and they all need music for their projects. Connect with them.
- Young or emerging musician? Make your own scene. Play interesting stories. Meet musicians that support you.
- You’re often required be a portfolio musician to make a living today. It’s important to be organised and not waste time.
As always, feel free to comment below.
Your latest release Olympians was born out of the pandemic period when touring was not possible. What went into that project and the process that would probably not have happened in ‘normal’ times?
The idea for Olympians probably would not have been born would it not have been for the pandemic period and the restrictions for live concerts in the Netherlands. There were no concerts. Period. But it was in the interest of the orchestra to keep playing. We recorded the Trijntje Oosterhuis Burt Bacharach Album remotely during this time.
Then our drummer and Olympians co-producer Martijn Vink proposed that we make the long-awaited Metropole record of some of the music that I have written for them over the years. We selected 8 of the hits, plus a live recording of my newest commission for the orchestra.
The most noteworthy difference in the way the project was done had to do with the amount of time and dedication spent by the orchestra members (particularly the rhythm section) and engineers to make this recording.
We put the tracks together from the ground-up with the rhythm tracks first. The strings and winds were then recorded in different spaces at the MCO studios, which I prefer anyway, as the strings demand a different acoustic.
A lot of the rhythm tracks were then replaced after the tutti tracks were recorded, mostly to match the dynamics and vibe, and to accommodate the changes made along the way.
And then we had our star engineer Tijmen Zinkhaan assemble everything and mix. That took quite a while. We mastered it in LA with Bernie Grundman. The most notable difference in Olympians from the way that we roll in normal times is that I wasn’t in the studios waving my arms during the sessions.
We had no physical arm waving going on, but I was present with the orchestra during the sessions on zoom, giving my comments through the talkback system like a producer from the control room. Instead of 10 meters away I was 6000 miles away! Wild. The soloists of course were recorded in different studios, but this is also done during normal times these days.
You have first started with producing music for TV. Do you have any advice for musicians who are interested in getting into the world of synchronization?
I always considered myself a jazz composer with an interest in pop and r&b music. However, I went to LA in the 80s with the aim to be a film composer and did spend a portion of my early LA years working in television before going on the road.
I have to say that I did not get too deeply in it as I later got involved with recording my own music and touring, especially after my first Blue Note record. I found that the film and television field in LA was very insular and difficult to crack as a young writer (or an old writer).
But I see more opportunities these days for younger musicians to be involved in writing for media music, based purely on the number of creators and networks out there, most accessible on the internet.
And believe it or not, more diverse.
And the fact is that it is not ALL done in LA anymore. My main piece of advice to those who wish to write film music, is to find people who are creating films and have them know you and what you do. There are a lot of independent filmmakers all over the world and they all need music for their projects.
The question is, what do you have to offer them and how sympathetic are you to their stories? Of course, you need to get very skilled first. There is no point chasing after someone for an opportunity if you have nothing to say.
You also teach jazz composition at USC. How does today’s composer need to be prepared in terms of their career, compared to your generation?
I have found that my most talented students already have an idea of what they want to do and have begun the process of getting their music out there. My job is to help them on their path but otherwise get out of the way. The internet and social media really help them to create their fan base.
But of course, this has to be part of a more broad based strategy to make a living, as I don’t know too many jazz writers out there that are making a good living only on jazz concerts. The most successful ones are working in many aspects of the business, concerts, recordings, films, commercials, sync, composing/orchestration, music prep etc.
You’re a prolific composer. Do you have any specific routines which keep you productive and how do you beat procrastination or creative blocks?
I don’t have a set routine, as I never know what will be happening from one week to the next. If I am traveling or working on a program as a conductor, I have very little time to compose. When I am home, I am often dealing with planning and scheduling. And then there are my students.
So, I have a finite window with which to complete my writing assignments, and that sometimes gets stressful. I do a lot of thinking and planning about the music to be written so I don’t waste time when the pencil starts moving. It’s important to be organized.
You’ve collaborated on many Grammy-winning projects. How important do you see awards like this for artists in terms of building an audience?
I am always happy to be recognized for the work I do. I’d like to think that it calls attention to the projects that, as well as the work we do with other artists. I think that is the philosophy that the Grammy people have stuck with over the years. It is important for people to keep listening to music and discovering new artists. That’s what these shows are for.
Great music aside, to what do you attribute the success and longevity of the Metropole Orkest?
I have always thought that the thing that most separates the MO from everyone is its ideas and the willingness to try anything that interests them. It has been part of the recipe of every great project they have done from the beginning.
Even its beginnings in 1947 reflect that. If you told the orchestra in 1947 that they would still be rocking the stage in 2023, they would have believed it. That’s their vision.
In terms of Metropole programming, what sort of things about an artist motivate you to put together a show with them?
For me it begins with the concept, and most importantly: how does the concept or guest artist relate to the MO and the MO’s own identity and instrumentation?
Sometimes there is a disconnect, and for that reason when it comes to MO I tend to avoid situations where the orchestra would be merely the “backup band” instead of a distinct ingredient in the program. It could then in that case be anyone sawing away up there.
In the best case we would take the stage with an exciting concept and an artist that understands and appreciates what the MO has to say, and integrates the orchestra in the program. That’s the formula.
What do you consider your biggest achievement to date?
I don’t think so much in terms of achievement. I always just wanted to make music with my friends. I have been blessed to work with so many wonderful musicians who have given me a chance to contribute my voice to the party.
But now that you mention it, I am so grateful to have been involved with Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello’s recent project. He and Wayne Shorter shaped the way I think about music. The Joni and Bjork sessions of course were amazing. The WDR has given meso many opportunities to create very special projects.
And I am most proud with the relationship that I have built with the MO since 1995 and the language of groove that we have been able to create, not to mention the many concerts we shared together. That is very special for a composer and conductor. Once in a lifetime, really.
What do you think every young musician and composer should know about embarking on a career as a professional artist in 2023?
I would like young musicians to LOVE what they do. It takes many years and hard work to get to the point where you start getting satisfied with your work. Then you work harder. Make your own scene. Play interesting stories. Meet musicians that support you.
Find your sound and a mission and stick with it. Then people will notice you. And make sure people know who you are. The money will come later. And when it does (and even if it doesn’t), don’t forget what made you want to do it to begin with. Protect that and keep it close to your heart.
Thanks to Vince for taking the time to answer these questions!
ABOUT VINCE MENDOZA
One of the most versatile and prolific composer–arranger–conductors of the last two decades, multi-Grammy Award winner Vince Mendoza has written arrangements for a wide variety of pop and jazz artists, from Joni Mitchell, Sting, Melody Gardot, Elvis Costello and Bjork to Joe Zawinul, John Scofield, Charlie Haden, Al Di Meola, Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker, the Yellowjackets and the GRP All-Stars.
His compositions have appeared on recordings by the likes of saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist John Abercrombie, drummer Peter Erskine, pianist Joey Calderazzo and singer Kurt Elling. As a leader, Mendoza has released 10 recordings for the Blue Note, ACT, Blue Jackel and Zebra labels, including 1997’s Epiphany (with the London Symphony Orchestra) and 2011’s Nights on Earth, featuring an all-star cast and members of the Metropole Orkest, which Mendoza has led as chief conductor for the past six years.
Vince was honored with a Grammy Award for his work on the John Scofield “54” album on Emarcy records. It is his 6th Grammy and 34th nomination. He was also nominated by the Jazz Journalists Association as “arranger of the year”.