Thursday, June 15, 2017

Texan-turned-Hoosier trombonist confirms his bona fides locally heading a quartet

Freddie Mendoza put together a quartet in short order to fill an open space on David Allee's schedule. So the Ball State University trombonist and teacher came up with adept confederates to play the Jazz Kitchen for his debut there under his own name Wednesday night.


Freddie Mendoza first came to local attention directing jazz studies at the University of Indianapolis.
In the concise first set, he showed his mastery as both leader and colleague with pianist Scott Routenberg, also a BSU faculty member; bassist Jesse Wittman, and drummer Kenny Phelps.

For the latter half of the set, Mendoza was joined by an old collaborator from his former home base in Austin, Texas: Stanley "Cool Pops" Smith, a clarinetist and vocalist with deep Indianapolis roots as musician and producer. Smith told me he used to bring in some of the most eminent Indianapolis musicians to the old Hummingbird Cafe on Talbot Street, including Pookie Johnson, Russell Webster, and Jimmy Coe.

In Austin for more than 20 years, they were busy bandmates, playing a slew of weddings when they weren't doing jazz gigs. Smith has moved back to Indianapolis, and the connection seemed natural enough for him to sit in with the expert, if hastily assembled, quartet. The set ended with a laid-back country blues, featuring an amiably grainy Smith vocal, capped by a formidable front line of clarinet and trombone.

Smith first came onstage to lend some clarinet luster  to "It Had to Be You," a standard in which Mendoza showed off his vocal chops. The lyrical side of his trombone playing was displayed in his solo, which sat neatly in between solo outings by Smith and Routenberg. When Mendoza returned to singing to close out the song, he varied the tune agreeably to define the difference  between a jazz vocalist and an ordinary Great American Songbook exponent.

Two all-instrumental standards formed the first half of the set. "I Thought About You" was launched comfortably at a medium tempo and moved into first-rate soloing by Mendoza and Routenberg. Behind the pianist, Phelps' accompaniment featured several intense turnarounds toward the ends of the bridge and the main section that helped punctuate the performance. There were lively eight-bar exchanges toward the end, a feature of pick-up small groups that never gets old when players bring freshness to their eight-bar mini-solos, as Mendoza, Routenberg, and Phelps certainly did.

"You and the Night and the Music" showed off Mendoza's crisp articulation as well as the steady flow of his ideas. He can weave in rapid figuration without overdoing it or giving the impression that he is all about display. Wittman's bass solo made a firm statement that echoed the florid but not flimsy character of Routenberg's statement. There was another episode of "trading eights" with the drummer that was nicely finished off in diminuendo before the return of the theme for the last time.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]