To be a musician is also to be a fan, a historian, a cultural anthropologist, an explorer. You experience the music physically, maybe even ecstatically, with your whole body. And then you delve, you compare, you study, you try to understand. Slowly it gets to you, it gets into you, you find out who you are, and you set out on your chosen path. Or did the path choose you?
Ava Mendoza is all of the above. Her music is physical, ecstatic, driven. Watching her play you find yourself mesmerized, you feel it deeply and let it get to you long before you start thinking about it. And she’s a striking example of the generation whose self-education was transformed by having the internet as an infinite resource. As she said in an interview with the Portland Mercury in 2019:
'I had a couple of high school friends who were already really into jazz who introduced me to Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. As far as blues, I got into Captain Beefheart, and I read somewhere that he sounded like Howlin’ Wolf, so I listened to Howlin’ Wolf. Then I thought I should listen to older blues, so I got into Robert Johnson and Skip James and Rev. Gary Davis. Again, this was the 20th century internet, and you could research and listen to lots of music for free for the first time. Finding things early on came from talking to music freaks my own age, reading interviews with musicians I liked, and just tracking it down.'
This explains a lot. The transition from punk to free jazz has been quite a common trajectory, but the blues artists Ava mentions have clearly had a transformative influence. Her stunning first record, „Shadow Stories“, can also be heard as an homage. Listening to it again reminds me of the first time I heard her play. Presence, focus, authority, intensity. Already. None of that comes without putting the hours in, of course. And Ava personifies what it means to be a working musician. I wondered how it’s been, practicing in the time of Covid:
'It has varied so much. I’ve gone through periods of doing five, six hours a day, and periods of just half an hour a day. The most important thing to me is that it happens every day, no matter how little or much. There were some weeks where I was just dealing with practical reality and I barely touched the guitar. It had been at least a decade since that had happened. And I really started to feel it, both mentally and physically. Practicing is a big release and also my way of meditating or settling myself. And I play pretty hard, so if I don’t play regularly my whole body feels different, like I’ve stopped exercising and my muscles are going slack! But with no real gigs coming up, it took me a little time to understand what I wanted to work on, what my direction was when I had that much freedom. It was very good for me because I got some priorities straight as far as what I really cared about.’
This makes a lot of sense. A prolonged period with no performances is nothing if not disconcerting to any musician, and one challenge is to define for yourself what it is you’re practicing and what/who you’re practicing for. For some it’s been a moment to consider the nuts and bolts of technique, and in this regard Ava’s take is quite straightforward:
'With guitar I’ve always felt that the way you play something is as important as, or maybe more than, what’s being played. If I take the same three chords and play them in different ways – straight or with different kinds of vibrato, sliding up or down into them, pushing the tempo or playing behind the beat, digging in or playing light, etc. – it changes their meaning completely. Technique can be a way of speed picking an arpeggio, or a way of making the sound of a cheetah being strangled! To me technique is any way of playing the instrument that’s somewhat consistent: there’s some consistency to the way it’s executed, and to the sound it makes.’
What about composing?
‘I like multiple processes for different results. Sometimes I write entirely on the guitar, and part of the goal is to have things feel good on the instrument, be "guitaristic", fun to play. I'll come up with parts for the other instruments and record them multi-tracked, and then later notate them. But sometimes I'll write in Sibelius (software) itself. This gets me away from the things I'm used to playing on guitar, and into just hearing intervals and rhythms and so on. So I come up with things I never would otherwise, and often it's a challenge to learn them on the instrument afterwards!’
Recently, Ava has been using her love of Decoding Society, the iconic 80s spin-off from Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time period, as a spur:
'Ronald Shannon Jackson's playing and writing are a big inspiration in general. Decoding Society, to me, took Ornette’s harmolodic writing and improvising as a springboard and went somewhere new – tighter, more rock-inspired, more visceral and ecstatic. I'm trying to use that as a starting point... the idea is to apply some of RSJ and Decoding Society’s work to modern territory – using atonality and polytonality, sonic improvising, more modern rhythmic concepts – while remaining inspired by its beautiful melodic and poly-rhythmic qualities.’
In Monheim, part of the deal is to collaborate with the other invited artists, with whom one may or may not have anything in common. Asked in a similar context whether such a prospect was exciting or simply a cause of anxiety, Ava’s response was pragmatic:
'I guess music in general is exciting, and can cause anxiety! I wouldn’t say it makes me more anxious to play improvised music with new people than to play rehearsed songs alone or with people I know well. Maybe that sounds weird, but I think both situations have possibilities and pitfalls. There’s always improvising in any song you play – timing, tone, dynamics, adjusting to the rest of the band on all those levels, etc. – and there’s always some forethought or practice that goes into improvised music. Playing with newer folks, I might think in advance about their style and what we could do best together, but ultimately I just have to pay attention and react in the moment.’
Then again, hearing Ava’s version of „Motherless Child“ with Malcolm Mooney is to sense each moment as a lifetime, each dark chord as a light year. It’s the extreme elasticity of the moment that grabs and holds our attention. A constant flame that burns behind it, the passion of lived experience, is revealed when discussing the treatment of immigrants during the Trump years:
'This stuff hits close to home if you're involved in any immigrant community, and hopefully if you're a human. My Dad is a Bolivian immigrant, and I grew up around tons of immigrant families. So the things being done at the border in the US and the constant paranoia being inflicted by our administration and ICE are appalling to me.’
Listen to „The Paranoia Party“ by Unnatural Ways and you can feel it. What are the words about? 'Borders and how their enforcement affects people on the other side... borders, border crossings, the concept of who’s allowed in and out.’ You can read that literally, but also metaphorically, of course. The music world is, like most communities, full of boxes and borders and unspoken assumptions and rules, and folks who are always happy to tell you who you are and where you belong. I’m tempted to say you get used to it. But better if you don’t!
Ava Mendoza’s music is all about “not getting used to it”. It’s a shout, sometimes a scream, sometimes a whisper, but you’re going to listen, driven by the qualities that make her playing stand out – the passionate presence, the focus, the authority, the intensity and, let’s not forget, the virtuosity that comes from all that exhilarating hard work.