Now 100 Percent Original

Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta: TAMMIES voters' overwhelming choice for Band of the Year

This is how hard we fell for Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta: TAMMIES voters overwhelmingly chose them as Band of the Year, even though they hadn't played in town for about four months before the TAMMIES ceremony on Sept. 8.

We got swept up in the lavish retro sound and the intense, irresistible Latin-dance beats of the excellent musicians constituting Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta. We were smitten by how they filled the stage with their punk-like energy and indie-rock edge.

Until December 2008 and a fateful showcase in The Great Cover-Up (a for-charity music festival in which bands perform sets of covers), Sergio Mendoza had plied original jazz and fusion around Southern Arizona clubs with his band Seven to Blue. In previous Cover-Ups, they had performed enthusiastically received sets of music by Buddy Holly and Paul McCartney and Wings. For the 2008 Cover-Up, they considered Steely Dan and Earth, Wind and Fire before settling on Pérez Prado.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Mendoza had been playing keyboards with Calexico since 2006, and Joey Burns was in on the Cover-Up secret. Calexico was looking for a Latin-based opening act; Burns attended some rehearsals and stopped by Club Congress to watch the Prado set. Two weeks later, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta opened for Calexico at the Rialto Theatre, and soon afterward, they performed with Calexico before a crowd of 1,200 or so in Phoenix.

Y la Orkesta followed up with their own headlining set at Club Congress; a trip to San Francisco with Calexico; and headlining shows at the Rialto. And somewhere in there was an opening slot for Ozomatli.

Those early sets were fabulous concoctions of vintage hits by Prado and lesser-known artist Chico Che (except amoing Latin-jazz aficionados). Both men were the musical equivalent of talented character actors—brilliant craftsmen with a genius for crowd-pleasing arrangements and stagecraft. Mendoza, too, showed a talent for the latter that few foresaw.

And, of course, there was y la Orkesta's inclusion of Salvador Duran.

To meet the demands of holding down a headlining set, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta quickly expanded their repertoire to about 16 songs, even including four or five originals—songs by Duran, instrumentals by Mendoza. A live album was put together to surf the buzz and provide fans with a keepsake.

In May of this year, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta took a shot at crossing over: They tried out their nuevo Latin-indie sound on an audience of Latin-music fans at the Pachanga Latino Music Festival in Austin, an annual event that draws thousands to hear both traditional and contemporary Latin music.

"It was cool to test that scene. There was a lot of traditional salsa, like the whole '70s thing with Larry Harlow. There was a stage for newer forms of music and a stage for the more traditional sounds," Mendoza says, adding, with barely concealed disappointment, "They put us on the traditional stage.

"All the younger, newer projects were on the younger stage," he says. "We're probably more psychedelic than the people who played on the younger stage. I think we would've done a great job, there, too."

Most of the members of Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, including Mendoza, play regularly with other bands. For example, bassist Sean Rogers also performs with Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez. Lopez, also an y la Orkesta member, has his own band, Mostly Bears, and has also embarked on a much more personal, and lyrical, solo project under his own name. Lopez was actively recording and touring with this project, featuring Sergio Mendoza on keyboards, when the two of them agreed to back Marianne Dissard on a month-long European tour, which lead to subsequent time in the studio. Meanwhile, Mendoza continues to perform regularly with Calexico, and has toured with them steadily since last spring.

Among all of that, the band we named Band of the Year has been finding time to record new music, and Mendoza says he hopes the result will be released next year.

"The record will be 100 percent original, with no covers—mambo, cumbia, all Latin, with strings and lots of instruments," Mendoza says. "Salvador wrote and sings two songs in Spanish, (but) it's 80 percent instrumental. It's changing up a little bit, but following the same recipe. There are more upbeat-tempo songs, still a lot of energy."

And how does it compare to the live CD? "We're probably going to forget about that one," Mendoza says. "The band's been together a year and eight months now, and the one we're working on right now, I'm really proud to say, 'This is us.'"

Mendoza expects an early spring release to lead to a European tour, for which the band may already have a backer. Support in the United States is not so certain, pending a label deal, but Mendoza says the band is prepared to strike out on its own, if necessary.

And we will always be able to say we knew them when ...