Working with Joni Mitchell wasn’t as intimidating as some might think, according to acclaimed musician Vince Mendoza.
“There is a certain lightness about her that people don’t see,” Mendoza said in a recent interview, reflecting on two massive Mitchell albums, Both Sides Now and Travelogue, which he arranged and conducted.
“She was at times just one of the musicians, one of the cats. And other times you realized this is a serious artist and poet. And then she was the girl from Saskatoon. It was all of those three things together. If you understood that part of it, then it was a lot easier for you to navigate.”
Saskatoon Symphony: Don't Give Yourself Away - The Music of Joni Mitchell
When: Saturday, March 3
Where: TCU Place
Tickets: $60 to $90
Box office: tcutickets.ca, 306.975.7799
Mendoza won a Grammy award for his arrangements of the song Both Sides Now from the album of the same name (prominently featured in the 2003 film Love Actually). He won another Grammy for Woodstock, from Travelogue.
Though the 2000 and 2004 albums were well-received, few of the Mendoza arrangements were ever played live. A planned tour for Travelogue, for instance, never took place.
“Joni decided she didn’t want to do it so basically the music went into the closet and hadn’t been performed since.”
The Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra saw an opportunity and spent several years getting Mendoza to Saskatoon.
“It’s a very rare opportunity,” to hear the arrangements live, says Mendoza.
The six-time Grammy winner and 25-time nominee describes working on the Mitchell albums as a personal career highlight. In fact, the music never left his consciousness, despite the passage of time.
“In particular, the Travelogue record was such a monumental effort on our parts. There was so much detail put into the preparation of the record and of these arrangements and the performances, I feel they still stand up.”
Playing on the 22-track double album were legends like Larry Klein on bass, Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone and Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn.
Mendoza, 56, said it was inspiring to see how Klein and Mitchell concentrated on details, the arc and drama in the way her poetry was “unfurled.” Also, she was “kind and accepting” of his take on her songs.
“You could notice that her vocals gave quite a lot of deference to the arrangements and where she put her words and what she chose to say and to not say.
“She respected my work as I do hers. I think that it was quite a great dance.”
Mendoza’s next dance is to choreograph the concert with the SSO in mind — which tunes to do, which to leave out. For instance, some just don’t fit the instrumentation available. And the songs on Both Sides Now tend to be more popular, so they had to be well-represented. But Mendoza is partial to Travelogue because it highlights Mitchell’s poetry.
“Then the other consideration actually came from the Orchestra, pieces that have a particular significance to Saskatoon. We chose some of those as well, trying to bring it home, if you will.”
Another consideration is the rhythm, prompting Mendoza to bring with him two longtime collaborators, drummer Peter Erskine who played on Both Sides Now and Los Angeles bassist Edwin Livingston.
“Peter is not only an extraordinary drummer but an extraordinary musician. Hearing him in an orchestra context is superb but his ability to bring everybody together on stage is so important for a project like this.”
Livingston is “a lovely person and a great bass player, so I think the orchestra will enjoy having him there as well,” says Mendoza.
“There’s a certain rhythmic nucleus that we need in this music that is the heartbeat of a lot of these tunes.”
The singer is Sarah Slean. Mendoza hadn’t met her in person but is impressed with her devotion to Mitchell’s artistry.
He’s also curious about visiting the city where Mitchell spent her formative years, saying “I’m very much looking forward to it.”
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