Friday, January 27, 2012


January 25

Building a lush wall of sound behind the jazz combo.

It was SRO at the Rudolfinum on Wednesday night for the big-band extravaganza featuring American jazz stars John Scofield and Vince Mendoza. An enthusiastic crowd, strikingly younger and decidedly more rambunctious than the usual audience for classical music concerts, jammed Dvořák Hall. With the diplomatic set filling the main floor, even Czech jazz star Jiří Stivín was relegated to the cheap seats upstairs, where fans sat in the aisles behind columns to hear the music.

The occasion was the official opening of the Danish EU Presidency, which should happen more often if it comes with a celebration like this: Mendoza conducting the combined Danish Radio Big Band and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in a re-creation of 54, the Grammy Award-winning album that he and Scofield recorded in 2010. As Scofield said during a break between songs, “There’s a lot of different nationalities on stage here tonight. But we’re having no trouble communicating through the language of music.”

The EU should be so lucky – or so well-organized. The stage was split, with the string sections of the orchestra on the left, and a large group of horns (15 from the DRBB, and 5 from the orchestra) on the right. A percussion section down the middle was anchored by a drum kit up front, flanked by keyboards, standup bass, rhythm guitar and Scofield on lead guitar, arranged in a semicircle around the podium. The balance was excellent, with the jazz combo at the front of the stage working off lush walls of sound from the strings and horns behind them.

The minute Mendoza struck up the opening number, Door #3 (from Scofield’s 1996 release Quiet), it was like being transported to Los Angeles – a smooth, mellow sound with the golden burnish of southern California. That was basically a warm-up for “Carlos,” the opening cut on 54, which picked up both the pace and punch, with Scofield providing some tasty licks and the DRBB cranking up the brass. A nifty bridge by Mendoza added some percussive pop.

The next three pieces, also from 54 – “Jung Parade,” “Honest I Do” and “Polo Towers” – showcased the main strengths of both the album and evening, Mendoza’s energetic arrangements and Scofield’s smart guitar playing. The two men have been working together on this material for so long that there’s a natural flow to their performance, which features something fresh in every song. Scofield opened most of them with a solo that set the tone and tempo, then Mendoza would layer in the horns and strings – sometimes with gentle brushstrokes, as in “Honest I Do,” other times with vivid colors and driving rhythms, as in “Polo Towers.”

A fragrant finish.
The second half opened with an unannounced treat: Scofield took the stage with just the bass, drums and keyboard player for a straight-ahead version of Lester Young’s “Lester Leaps In.” It offered a reminder of what makes the guitarist great – an incredibly fluid and inventive style, and a remarkable ability to take a simple phrase and do something special with it. Scofield then provided some of the best laughs of the evening when Mendoza missed his cue to come out with the orchestra, and with the whole house waiting, Scofield picked up the baton and said, “I guess it’s up to me now.” That brought Mendoza to the podium fast.

The real conductor fired up a lively version of “Beauty and Sadness,” a cut from his latest release, Nights on Earth, that featured some fine duet work by the bass and keyboard players. Then three more songs from 54 rounded out the program, with Scofield getting to his feet for a bluesy exchange with the horn section in “Twang.” “Say We Did” dropped back into the mellow mode, with an all-strings bridge adding a nice glow. The finale, “Out of the City,” lacked the edge that it has on the disc, but otherwise provided a snappy finish. For the encore, Scofield reeled off a brief, rockin’ reprise of “Carlos.”

A steady succession of DRBB players stepped up for solos throughout the evening, adding individual flavors to the mix and showing impressive proficiency. Well-versed in the jazz vernacular, this band can flat-out play. The orchestra stayed mostly in a supporting role, but showed some flair and crisp playing when Mendoza called for it.

This is a very special event – it doesn’t happen very often,” Mendoza said at one point, which for once was not an exaggeration. From the free champagne and hors d’oeuvres at intermission to the brilliant collaboration onstage, it was a memorable and in some ways unprecedented evening. As Danish Ambassador Ole Emil Moesby pointed out in a speech before the performance, it was also a reminder of what can happen when two flagship radio stations cooperate on a cultural project. Here’s hoping for more.

For more on

The Danish Radio Big Band:

The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Czech Radio photos by Petr Horník

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