Vince Mendoza – Nights on Earth (2011)

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Photo by Pamela Fong

It’s been some time since we’ve heard Vince Mendoza working in such a personal context. Oh, we’ve heard plenty from Mendoza over the last decade, as he’s handled arranging for the likes of Bjork, Sting and Joni Mitchell. In fact, Mendoza earned two of his six career Grammys for Mitchell’s 2003 Travelogue and 2000 Both Sides Now projects.

But Mendoza, who has presided over the Metropole Orkest for the past six years, hasn’t released an album of his own compositions in a remarkable 13 years. That in itself makes Nights on Earth, due on Oct. 25 from Horizontal Jazz, something of an event — and that was before Mendoza unveils an overstuffed guest list of superstar friends that includes guitarists John Abercrombie and John Scofield; bassist Christian McBride; organist Larry Goldings; drummers Peter Erskine and Greg Hutchinson; members of the Metropole ensemble; and saxophonists Bob Mintzer and Joe Lovano, among others.

Still, you shouldn’t get the wrong idea. There are actually a multitude of traditions present, despite the abundance of jazz standouts. Appearances by Hector del Curto, an Argentinian master of the bandoneon (a kind of accordion); Tom Diakite, a Malian kora player and singer; Luciana Souza, the Brazilian vocalist; and Algerian drummer Karim Ziad serve to underscore the broader landscape that Mendoza travels across the breadth of this release. This is, you’re reminded, who he is — part jazz guy, part concert master, part pop-music savant, part world-music impresario, and completely intriguing.

So, we have Souza, singing in her native Portuguese, on the undulating bossa nova “Ao Mar,” appearing just after epic solos from the likes of Abercrombie and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire on “Poem of the Moon.” Similarly, “Shekere” is bolstered by Diakite’s elliptical vocal and his bracing turn on the kora, a 21-string harp like instrument, then Lovano turns in one of his most emotionally available performances in memory on “Beauty and Sadness.” Sort of like a mash up between Mendoza’s 1990 Blue Note release Start Here and 2009’s world music gem Viento: The Gacria Lorca Project. “Gracias” perhaps melds the two ideas best of all, as a bata groove from Luis Conte provides the perfect foundation for a church pew-rattling interlude from Goldings. Bookending all of this are two quietly effective moments: The album opens with a flamenco-inspired tribute to Mendoza’s father, and closes with a duet for cello and bandoneon simply called “Lullaby.”

Throughout, Mendoza’s arrangements provide the perfect contextual atmosphere, perhaps best heard on “Everything Is You,” where a classically inspired cluster of instruments — cello, flutes, harp and piano — sets the stage for a pair of moving solo turns by pianist Alan Pasqua and then Mintzer.

In the end, the album cover here, a darkly captivating photograph of the Aurora Borealis over twilight landscape, couldn’t be a more perfect metaphor for Mendoza’s long-waited comeback project. Those charged particles seem to burst out nowhere in the northern sky, only to dance together as if by design. The result is something improvisational yet profoundly wonder filled, something both expansive and specific.

Just like Nights on Earth.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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