Vince Mendoza, Luciana Souza brining Brazilian ballads to Stanford
When it comes to orchestrating a perfect song Vince Mendoza knows that the first rule is to get out of the way.
A seven-time Grammy Award winner who picked up his latest golden statue last month for his arrangement of Christie McVie’s title track on her final record, “Songbird — A Solo Collection,” Mendoza is the go-to arranger for singular singers. Björk, Joni Mitchell, Chaka Khan, Sting, Dianne Reeves and Bobby McFerrin have all called upon his services.
He returns to the Bay Area Saturday for a Stanford Live performance with São Paulo-born Luciana Souza, another sui generis singer who’s served as a muse for Mendoza’s orchestral imagination. The two Los Angeles residents are focusing on music from their 2020 album with Germany’s WDR Big Band Cologne, “Storytellers,” a ballad-centric project that gleans some of the most ravishing melodies from the Brazilian songbook.
“I call Vince the translator,” said Souza, who won a Grammy Award herself as a featured vocalist on “River: The Joni Letters,” Herbie Hancock’s 2007 album interpreting the songs of Joni Mitchell. “He doesn’t add anything unnecessary. He lets the rhythm play itself and finds a way to leave chords and harmonies flowing together in a Brazilian way.”
For the Bing Concert Hall performance Mendoza is conducting an orchestra drawn from musicians studying at the USC’s Thornton School of Music, where he’s a longtime faculty member. The ensemble’s crucial, mostly Brazilian rhythmic foundation includes guitar great Ricardo Silveira, rising pianist Luca Mendoza (who happens to be his son), and percussionist Rogerio Boccato, who’s performed with many of the composers featured on the program, including Antonio Carlos Jobim and Milton Nascimento (Jacob Collier drummer Christian Euman is the rhythm section’s American-born ringer).
“A lot of young people from USC are coming up, musicians who have seen the concert and are familiar with the music,” Souza said. “Stanford has given us a rehearsal space, so we’ll have a whole day together before the concert to prepare. It’s not one of those do-the-sound-check-and-hit situations.”
“Storytellers” is Souza and Mendoza’s latest and most ambitious collaboration, building on a friendship that dates back more than a decade. They started working together when she hired him to arrange a medley of Jobim tunes, an assignment that Mendoza describes as “the beginning of my true Brazilian music education. Learning about that deep catalog of Jobim got me more interested in the other songwriters.”
Years later, they had a chance to create an evening of music with the WDR Big Band Cologne, one of several German radio big bands that often collaborate with jazz artists as soloists and arrangers. Souza and Mendoza decided they’d focus on Brazilian songwriters who express a particular national essence with musical narratives tied to Brazil’s teeming natural beauty.
“A unique quality to Brazilian popular music is that it’s hard to remove from the environment,” Mendoza said. “The stories are inextricable from nature, and we assembled pieces by some amazing songwriters — Jobim, Guinga, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque — who all have amazing ways of presenting their stories of the human condition, stories of life and family and love, that often describe natural settings.”
While Souza has been a regular presence on Bay Area stages since the mid-aughts via engagements with SF Performances, the Stanford Jazz Festival and SFJAZZ, Mendoza doesn’t make the trip north often.
Last summer, however, he was at the helm of an extraordinary evening at Frost Amphitheater that concluded Stanford Jazz Workshop’s 50th season, conducting an orchestra with NEA Jazz Master Dianne Reeves and an all-star sextet including saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Taylor Eigsti, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.
Released on March 3, his new album “Olympians” reunites him with Reeves, her fellow jazz vocal star Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Metropole Orkest, the Dutch orchestra that he’s collaborated with over the past three decades. It’s a creatively ambitious project that follows his Grammy Award-winning 2021 album “Freedom Over Everything,” a large-scale, politically charged response to the 2016 election featuring a suite commissioned and performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra star soprano Julia Bullock.
In turning his attention to the Brazilian songbook with Souza he taps into a very different kind of terrain. Understated but voluptuous, the arrangements hug her voice, gliding along the contours of the melodies.
“Vince has a great understanding of phrasing and a singer’s breath,” Souza said. “A lot of people can do it writing for film, but for stage it takes a different set of skills. He loves ballads, and ultimately this concert is not about me. It’s really about the music and those storytellers and what they show us about ourselves.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at email@example.com.
VINCE MENDOZA AND LUCIANA SOUZA
Presented by Stanford Live
When: 7:30 p.m. March 25
Where: Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University
Tickets: $15-$92; live.stanford.edu