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A Jazz Orchestra for the New Millennium

by Chuck Reider

The Reno Jazz Orchestra’s recent concerts at the Good Luck Macbeth theater May 31 and June 1 featured the compositions and arrangements of Vince Mendoza. I suspect most of you have not heard his name, but I am certain you have heard his music. With 22 recordings as 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 of these gentlemen were well-versed in both jazz and popular music worlds and expanded the musical palette of a jazz orchestra. This leads me to the topic of today’s column: What does the future jazz orchestra in the new millennium sound like?

Composing, Arranging and Orchestration

Let me give you some insight on the role of composer-arranger-orchestrator, of which all of the folks above were masters of each discipline. We are all familiar with a composer — that’s the person who wrote the song. An arranger will take that song and create a unique version of it. Will it be fast or slow, which instruments play the melody, which instruments get to take a solo, what will the backgrounds to the melody sound like, is there a shout chorus?

Shout chorus, what is that? In jazz orchestra/big band arrangements traditionally there is a section of the arrangement that features the band. After the melody and the soloists improvise comes the shout chorus. It's new music, not the melody, that features all the instruments as an ensemble. Since all the instruments are playing, it's usually the loudest part of the arrangement — hence “shout chorus.” After the short chorus, the melody is played and the arrangement is complete. Next comes orchestration — which instruments play what parts. Consider a Beethoven symphony played 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 "Bolero"? It is a great example of orchestration as each presentation of the melody features a different instrument with a different background accompaniment, changing the mood from mysterious to grandiose. I bring these elements up because the new generation of composer/arrangers are giving the jazz orchestras a fresh new sound.

The Reno Jazz Orchestra's newest trumpeter, Julien Knowles Photoby David Rocco

The Reno Jazz Orchestra's newest trumpeter, Julien Knowles. (Photo: David Rocco)

Mendoza's Innovations

The RJO first heard Vince Mendoza’s arrangements (or as jazz musicians say, “charts”) when trumpet great Randy Brecker brought a few to perform with us way back in 2005. I was captivated by these charts and searched out more music by Mendoza and found his versions of the Yellowjackets songs “Dewey” and “Azure Moon.” You can hear the RJO’s performance of “Azure Moon” on our CD recorded in the Sparks Nugget Celebrity Showroom. We have added more of his charts over the years, including a seven-piece suite “Introduction and Riffs,” and two new charts from his latest CD. Our recent concerts’ first set were a variety of his charts and the second set was comprised of five pieces from the suite. Mendoza’s arranging-orchestrating expands the jazz orchestra palette in several ways. He uses the standard jazz orchestra instrumentation (saxophones, trumpets, trombones, piano, bass, guitar and drums) in new creative way.

I'll use his composition “Homecoming” as an example. The saxophonists play not only their saxes, but must also play clarinets and flutes as well, what we call doubling. One melody features two clarinets and guitar, creating a unique new tone color. At a different point in the chart he begins with two bass clarinets, bass trombone and acoustic bass. Eight measures later he adds two trombones and guitar, adding a different voice. With each subsequent phrase of eight measures he adds two trumpets and clarinet, followed by two trumpets and soprano saxophone, creating four different unique tone colors playing individual melodies at the same time. And the shout chorus? It is at the end of the chart with no restatement of the melody. He also is creative with phrasing, or how the melody is organized. Most music we hear has eight-measure phrases. How about George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” as an example? The melody is eight measures which are repeated after which is the bridge, eight measures, and then the melody one more time, creating the AABA form. Thousands of great songs follow this form, but Mendoza does not hold fast to that standard. The seventh movement of his suite’s melody begins with a 17-measure melody, followed by a 15-measure melody and ends with a repeat of the original melody. The soloists need to pay attention as well because some solo sections are seven measures repeated or even three measures repeated. In the wrong composer’s hands these sorts of phrasing will sound awkward and forced. Not so with Mendoza.

More Voices

I have spent some time highlighting Mendoza’s new approach to the jazz orchestra, but there are many other contemporary composer-arrangers out there adding their voices. One of my favorites is Darcy James Argue. I began listening to his album "Brooklyn Babylon" and did not realize the instrumentation of his ensemble called “Secret Society” was that of a jazz orchestra. His approach is so unique it took a look at the liner notes to see yes, five saxophones, five trumpets, four trombones and rhythm section.

Here are a couple more to check out: 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 composer/arrangers from the past like Gil Evans, Stan Kenton, and of course the great Duke Ellington. All have added to the rich tradition of the jazz orchestra. I want to leave you with one other component reshaping jazz orchestras: the musicians. It was a great joy to me to hear the students of the RJO’s jazz workshop open the concerts. Middle and high school students who participated in eight Saturdays of jazz improvisation instruction got to share what they learned on stage in a combo format. The RJO musician roster also changed. Our regular rhythm section had previous engagements so we had a brand new section of under-30 musicians there as well as several young musicians in the horn sections. For an organization 22 years old it is a delight to hear from the new generation of jazz.

Chuck Reider, photo by  Joy Strotz

Chuck Reider is the executive director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra. This article appeared in the Reno Gazette Journal June 10, 2019
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