Vince Mendoza: A Song Doctor Gets Back To His Own Work

Nov 6, 2011

In 1969, Joni Mitchell released "Both Sides Now," a simple and beautiful song that would become one of her defining works. In 2000, an older, wiser, decidedly more introspective Mitchell revived the song in a radically different incarnation, featuring lush strings and complex harmonies.

The remake was the work of arranger, orchestrator and composer Vince Mendoza. He won a Grammy for his work on that song, and has also lent his Midas touch to artists including Bjork, Elvis Costello and Sting. Speaking with Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish, Mendoza says the role of an arranger is loosely defined, with most decisions made on a case-by-case basis.

"An arranger will take a melody or a harmony or an idea written by someone else, and put them in a frame," Mendoza explains. "Of course, the big question is, 'How much of myself should I put into this arrangement?' That was a big issue with Joni — how much of the originals to maintain, and how much to tell the story in a different way."

Though arranging has been Mendoza's primary pursuit of late, he's also a respected composer in his own right. Last month, he released his first album of originals in 13 years, Nights on Earth. The new recordings feature solos from veteran jazz musicians, including guitarists John Scofield and John Abercrombie and organist Larry Goldings. Mendoza says he wrote the songs with the players' particular talents in mind.

"The soloists that appear on this record were people that I've met over the course of my career, and [who] have inspired me to write the way that I do," Mendoza says. "So I had to have them be part of this party. A lot of the magic really came from what they had to offer me as a composer."

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