A jazz orchestra for the new millennium


The recent Reno Jazz Orchestra concerts at the Good Luck Macbeth Theater on May 31 and June 1 featured compositions and arrangements by Vince Mendoza. I suspect most of you haven’t heard his name, but I’m sure you’ve heard his music. With 22 recordings as an arranger-conductor for a wide range of artists from Joni Mitchell to Joe Zawinul, 15 recordings of his original compositions, six Grammy Awards and 25 Grammy nominations, his work is widely heard.

So why don’t you recognize his name? He follows in the legendary footsteps of other composer-arranger-conductors such as Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Billy May and Claus Ogerman. Most of you have heard of Quincy Jones, but what about the others? All these gentlemen were familiar with the worlds of jazz and popular music and broadened the musical palette of a jazz orchestra.

This brings me to the topic of today’s column: What does the future jazz orchestra of the new millennium look like?

Composition, arrangement and orchestration

Let me give you an overview of the role of composer-arranger-orchestrator, of which all of the above people were masters of each discipline.

We all know a songwriter – he’s the person who wrote the song. An arranger will take this song and create a unique version of it. Will it be fast or slow, which instruments play the melody, which instruments can play a solo, what will the melody backgrounds look like, is there a shout chorus?

Crying in chorus, what is it? In jazz / big band orchestral arrangements, there is traditionally a section of the arrangement that introduces the group. After the melody and the improvisation of the soloists comes the chorus of cries. It’s new music, not the melody, which presents all the instruments as a whole. Since all the instruments are playing, this is usually the loudest part of the arrangement – hence “screaming chorus”. After the little chorus, the melody is played and the arrangement is finished.

Next is the orchestration – which instruments play which parts. Consider a Beethoven symphony performed on the piano. Think of it as a black and white representation – all the notes are there, but no orchestral tone colors. The orchestrator uses the ensemble’s “sound palette” to create the finished product. Have you heard Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro”? This is a great example of orchestration as each melody presentation features a different instrument with a different backing accompaniment, changing the mood from mysterious to grandiose. I bring up these elements because the new generation of composers / arrangers are giving jazz orchestras a whole new sound.

Reno Jazz Orchestra's newest trumpeter, Julien Knowles.

What’s new in Mendoza

The RJO first heard Vince Mendoza’s arrangements (or, as jazz musicians say, the “charts”) when great trumpeter Randy Brecker brought a few to play with us in 2005. I was captivated by these charts and searched for more Mendoza music and found his versions of the Yellowjackets songs “Dewey” and “Azure Moon”.

You can hear RJO’s performance on “Azure Moon” on our CD recorded in the Sparks Nugget Celebrity Showroom. We’ve added more to her charts over the years, including a seven-track “Introduction and Riffs” suite and two new charts from her latest CD. The first set of our recent concerts was a variety from her charts and the second set consisted of five tracks from the suite.

Mendoza’s orchestral arrangement broadens the palette of the jazz orchestra in several ways. He uses the standard instrumentation of a jazz orchestra (saxophones, trumpets, trombones, piano, bass, guitar and drums) in a creative new way.

I’ll use his “Homecoming” composition as an example. Saxophonists not only play their saxophones, but also have to play the clarinet and the flute, which we call dubbing. A melody includes two clarinets and a guitar, creating a unique new sound color. At a different point in the ranking, he begins with two bass clarinets, a bass trombone and an acoustic bass. Eight bars later, he adds two trombones and a guitar, adding a different voice. To each subsequent eight bar phrase, he adds two trumpets and a clarinet, followed by two trumpets and a soprano saxophone, creating four different unique sound colors playing individual melodies at the same time. And the chorus of screams? This is at the end of the graphic without rephrasing the melody.

He is also creative with the phrasing or the way the melody is organized. Most of the music we hear has eight bar phrases. How about “I’ve Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin as an example? The melody is eight bars which are repeated, after which the bridge, eight bars, then the melody once more, creating the AABA form. Thousands of great songs follow this form, but Mendoza doesn’t stick to this standard. The seventh movement of the melody in its suite begins with a 17 bar melody, followed by a 15 bar melody and ends with a repetition of the original melody. Soloists should also be careful because some soloist sections are seven bars repeated or even three bars repeated. In the hands of the wrong composer, this kind of phrasing will sound awkward and forced. This is not the case with Mendoza.

More voices

I’ve spent some time emphasizing Mendoza’s new approach to the jazz orchestra, but there are plenty of other contemporary songwriters adding their voices. One of my favorites is Darcy James Argue. I started listening to his album “Brooklyn Babylon” and didn’t realize that the instrumentation of his ensemble called “Secret Society” was that of a jazz orchestra. His approach is so unique that it took a glance at the sleeve notes to see yes, five saxophones, five trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section.

Here are a few more to discover: the Brian Eisenberg Jazz Orchestra, the Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra or the all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra. And don’t forget to check out some great composers / arrangers from the past like Gil Evans, Stan Kenton, and of course the great Duke Ellington. All of them have added to the rich tradition of the jazz orchestra.

I want to leave you with another element that is reshaping jazz orchestras: musicians. It was a great joy for me to hear the students of the RJO jazz workshop open the concerts. Middle school and high school students who took part in eight Jazz improvisation teaching Saturdays were able to share what they learned on stage in a combo format. The roster of RJO musicians has also changed. Our regular rhythm section had previous engagements, so we had a whole new section of musicians under 30 as well as several young musicians in the brass sections. For a 22-year-old organization, it’s a pleasure to hear the new generation of jazz.

Chuck Reider is the Executive Director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra.

Chuck reider

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Henry R. Wright