The Jazz Player

Luca Mendoza playing in Vietnam at a Billboard branch show/Photo Courtesy Luca Mendoza

BY Chandrea Miller

As a preschooler, Luca Mendoza began studying music and by the time he was a senior in college, he had performed just about everywhere from The Grammy Awards to the Billboard Music Awards.

“I got to play some private parties for the Grammys,” Mendoza said. “I also did a show in Vietnam, for the Billboard branch. It was a cool show, the consulate to Saigon was there. It was a diplomatic thing.”

Luca Mendoza at a Grammy event/Photo Courtesy Luca Mendoza

The multi-genre pianist and composer is a Los Angeles Philharmonic Composer Fellow, a National YoungArts Foundation Finalist and an LA Music Center Spotlight Grand Prize Winner.

However, when the California native isn’t racking up music awards, you’ll find him playing at the Blue Whale jazz club in downtown Los Angeles.

“I would wager that you would hear something that is completely unfamiliar to you if you came to a show of mine,” Mendoza said.

So, I did just that. On February 27, 2020, I attended Mendoza’s show at the Blue Whale.

Blue Whale jazz club/Photo Courtesy Chandrea Miller

It would turn out to be the then, USC senior’s final show. Ten days later, the pandemic would shut down almost everything, including all concert and music venues.

But on this night, live music was alive and well.

On stage, the classical composition major commanded the piano and keyboards alongside a quartet of seasoned jazz musicians including David Binney, an acclaimed saxophonist and one of the most prolific musicians on the current jazz scene.

Luca Mendoza playing at the Blue Whale/Photo Courtesy Chandrea Miller

Binney, who is known for his performances and recordings with such prestigious musicians as Chrissie Hynde, Norah Jones, Bobby Previte and countless others, has been a mentor to Mendoza.

“We play together at the Blue Whale about once a month,” he said. Mendoza and Binney have also toured throughout the United States and in Australia, Canada and Vietnam.

Luca Mendoza playing with David Binney/Photo Courtesy Luca Mendoza

On this night, their jazz performance was a magical mix of sounds and genres.

“I think the more schooling I have and learn, the less I see these genres as distinct,” Mendoza said. “It all just comes down to sound.”

Sound that can change from one performance to another, depending on the mood of the musician.

“The most important fundamental thing that’s necessary for jazz, to me, is improvisation,” Mendoza said. “It’s very personal, there’s a huge emphasis on the individual.”

During Mendoza’s performance, the free jazz tradition of improvisation was on full display, but to put it into words may not be possible.

“Abstract art is complicated because there’s no words to say what this song is about,” Mendoza said. “We’re seeking to express things that can’t be expressed with words, which is essentially the point: we can say what is impossible to say and show feeling that is beyond all expression.”

And that’s exactly what Mendoza accomplished during this performance—so much said and felt, but only fully understood by each audience member present for the performance.

Once the pandemic ends and music venues reopen, Mendoza says he plans to continue to perform and then some.

“The biggest thing for me as a musician is to diversify,” Mendoza said. “There is playing festivals, competitions, clubs, but there’s also writing, publishing, session work, and work as a composer.”

Composition is of particular interest to Mendoza’s father, Vince Mendoza.

Vince Mendoza composing music/Photo Courtesy Vince Mendoza

The senior Mendoza is a conductor, arranger and composer who has been at the forefront of the jazz and contemporary music scene as a composer and recording artist for the past 25 years, with 6 Grammy awards and 25 nominations to his credit. In addition, he is a USC alum and professor at USC’s Thornton School of Music.

When asked about his accomplished father, the recent Thornton graduate gave a thoughtful answer: “My dad is pretty famous in the music world and I’m really proud of who he is, but I just work really hard to not be connected,” Mendoza said. “I just want them to first know me.”

And there’s plenty to know.

Mendoza is one of two of the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival’s all time “Triple Crown Winners,” as a two-time member of the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, Outstanding Soloist and Gerald Wilson Award for Composition winner.

In addition, he has received multiple DownBeat Magazine Student Music awards, most recently picking up two awards this year at the magazine’s 43rd annual awards in the category of Original Composition – Small Ensemble for his piece “Contract,” and as a co-winner in the undergraduate category of Jazz Soloist.

Regarding the accolades, the 2020 USC spring graduate shared one final thought: “The only thing I have to express is gratitude.”