Tuesday, September 29, 2015

UIndy's new jazz-studies director Freddie Mendoza introduces himself as a performer in scintillating concert

The conditions were well nigh perfect — the best acoustical environment for a jazz concert as I've ever had the pleasure to bask in at the University of Indianapolis. The sound was balanced, crisp and well-blended among the four musicians.

Even better, of course: the music Monday night in the Lilly Performance Hall of the DeHaan Fine Arts Center was first-rate. The occasion was Freddie Mendoza's local debut in the spotlight, though he's made some local appearances as a sideman going back several months.

Mendoza is a trombonist and euphonium player from Texas who has succeeded Harry Miedema as UIndy's director of jazz studies. Having just taken up his duties there, it was fitting that he also make a public display of his credentials as a player.

Freddie Mendoza, new at UIndy.
He was accompanied by Steven Jones, piano; Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums. He praised this team in both halves of the two-hour concert, saying they "made my job easy."

Any good music-making is collegial (with the exception of solo programs), but if one of the participants is intended to stand out, it certainly helps if he or she feels comfortable in playing to maximum advantage. Leading this quartet, Mendoza evinced a high degree of comfort in a program of tunes he both likes playing and feels challenged by (by his own admission).

Opening with Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't," the quartet set and maintained a rapid tempo, immediately showing off Mendoza's facility and rapid profusion of musical ideas. He hit every note from the top, as it were, meaning not only was his intonation flawless but also that each nimble phrase had brightness and buoyancy.

Several times he mentioned Frank Rosolino (1926-1978) as his trombone idol, and the influence was evident here and particularly in "Here's That Rainy Day, " which was almost exclusively a trombone showcase until an outstanding Tucker solo passed the goodies around. (I can't blame the bassist for apparently shaking off the opportunity to solo in the concert's last two numbers, as he must have wanted his delving into this Jimmy Van Heusen evergreen to be his last solo word Monday night.)

Mendoza's Rosolino influence is well-absorbed into a personal manner. And I certainly trust he is more comfortable in his own skin than the much-admired Detroit musician was in his: Rosolino's life ended in a murderous outburst poignantly described in a chapter of Gene Lees' "Meet Me at Jim and Andy's."

The new UIndy faculty member's playing is comfortable in the upper range, like Rosolino's, and prone to tuck in ornamental figures with agility and expressive point, also a Rosolino trait. In "All the Things You Are," I noticed touches of Indianapolis' own J.J. Johnson in Mendoza's nicely accented pecking at notes in constructing phrases that magically hung together well. (It would be fun to hear a Mendoza version of J.J.'s cruising on "Turnpike" someday. It would also be nice to hear a jazz version of "ATTYA"  without the standard dated bop tag at both ends.)

Mendoza turned to euphonium for contrast. Its blossoming, mellow sound suited a wonderful performance of "Body and Soul," on which his solo resembled a decorative curtain carefully draped over a cherished piece of furniture. In Charlie Parker's "Au Privave" the euphonium balanced bluesy and fluttery elements attractively.

On "Body and Soul," Jones contributed a witty solo with more variety of tone than I heard in a recent UIndy appearance. I sometimes wanted to hear more distinction of phrases in his solos, but he strings together lengthy garlands of notes prettily, as was evident in Jobim's "How Insensitive." His unaccompanied introduction to "Alice in Wonderland" was superb in a performance that sustained a high level throughout: Tucker was excellent, with so much feeling, so much logic to his solo; Mendoza offered an especially cogent example of Rosolino-inflected lyricism. The drummer is a seasoned accompanist to singers, and thus right at home in ballads.

As often as I've heard Phelps' sensitive, protean drumming, I've never experienced an acoustically superior display of it to Monday night's. It was suitable for the hall and for everything that was going on in his colleagues' playing. In episodes of exchange with Mendoza and Jones — progressively shrinking in "Au Privave" — he always came up with a fresh response. He got a deserved virtuoso showcase to begin "Caravan," moving from insect-like buzzing to exploitation of the full kit before the rest of the band jumped on for the ride. And what a ride it was, just like the whole show.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]