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September 29, 2012
Michel Contat -

Bon nombre des nouveaux venus sur l'excitante scène new-yorkaise nous parviennent par le label américain Sunnyside, qui poursuit ainsi un indispensable rôle de découvreur. Ben Wendel n'est pas tout à fait un inconnu : né en 1976, ce saxophoniste ténor canadien-américain a été remarqué d'abord au sein du groupe Kneebody, qui travaillait intelligemment le son mi-acoustique mi-électrique.

C'est cette voie qu'il explore encore dans ce Frame de belle venue. Au ténor, il cultive un son mat, droit, hérité de Michael Brecker mais passé à l'épurateur. Ses phrases sont méditées, toujours retenues au bord de l'excès. Prenez son solo sur les ravissants accords de Con Alma, la composition de Dizzy Gillespie : il les détaille avec âme, aidé par l'unisson avec le pianiste Gerald Clayton. C'est d'ailleurs son entente avec les pianistes qui est l'aspect le plus marquant de ce disque. Tigran Hamasyan, dans le groupe de qui Ben Wendel a aussi joué, apparaît comme le partenaire idéal de la recherche sereine de ce saxophoniste à suivre, qui se révèle aussi sur un instrument rarissime en jazz, le basson. Frame n'est sans doute pas le disque du siècle mais il indique bien à quel niveau d'aisance se situe désormais l'invention jazzique.


May 18, 2012
Chris Barton - Los Angeles Times

At first glance, a duet between a piano and saxophone could be considered a challenging assignment for some jazz listeners. Stripped of a rhythm section to anchor the ear, artists who tackle such a formation reduce their sound to its essence while allowing ample space to roam, leaving nowhere to hide if one player steps out too far beyond the other's lead.

Fortunately -- but certainly not unexpectedly -- no such thing happened at the Blue Whale on Thursday night. Combining saxophonist Ben Wendel and pianist Dan Tepfer, the concert was a summit meeting of sorts between two steadily rising talents on the Sunnyside label.

Wendel may be the more known commodity in L.A., having co-founded the genre-hopping jazz-rock group Kneebody as well as a stint teaching at USC before leaving for a position at the New School of New York. But Tepfer has drawn considerable notice in recent years with his 2010 album "Five Pedals Deep" and frequent collaborations with saxophone great Lee Konitz, which included a lauded album of improvised duet recordings in 2009.

Opening with a gently twisted take on "Monk's Dream" byThelonious Monk, the duo  circled the edges of the song's familiar, off-kilter refrain, never entirely embracing it until the finish as the two took turns following one another down a lightly sketched path as the two constructed a head-bobbing groove.

A roiling take on Tepfer's "Peal, Repeal" fairly justified the Brad Mehldau comparisons as the pianist punched out bright counterpoints over a steady rumble from his left hand. As Wendel's saxophone arced overhead, Tepfer boldly tore the melody into a new, darkened corner, inspiring Wendel to downshift into a low drone underneath his changes. Effortlessly coursing through a seemingly endless series of give-and-takes, the song seemed as if it could expand through the night as it continued to build.

A composer with a restless sonic ear, Wendel switched to bassoon for a churning run through  “Simple Song,” which was balanced by an anthemic turn from Tepfer, and “Leaving” from Wendel’s recent album “Frame” missed the original’s dark, percussive drive but gained a new layer of melancholy with Wendel's sighing melodica anchoring the song’s center.

The duo later ventured into a few “tastes” from Tepfer’s profoundly ambitious “Goldberg Variations / Variations” recording from last year, which was co-produced by Wendel. Following the structure of the album, the duo took on a pair of Bach’s knotty originals and followed each piece with looser, improvisation-heavy takes.

After the intricate musical miniatures that at one point found Tepfer alternately crossing his hands over each other in a dizzying display of pace, the duo looked spent -- but joyfully so. “How many of those are there again?” Wendel playfully asked Tepfer as he wiped his horn. Upon hearing the answer Wendel replied, “Yeah, two is enough.”


April 14, 2012
Michael J. West - JazzTimes

Frame should be a mess. It’s an eclectic zigzag of contemporary styles, played in configurations ranging from duo to full sextet, with multireedist (but primarily tenor saxophonist) Ben Wendel rotating between axes and keyboards rotating between players (Gerald Clayton and Tigran Hamasyan on piano, Adam Benjamin on Rhodes). But it all holds brilliantly together through the sheer force of Wendel’s personality. Indeed, there’s little other common ground to the chopsy fusion of “Frame,” the sax-trio funk of “Jean and Renata” and the delicate piano/tenor duet “Con Alma.”

Wendel’s hard but rich saxophone sound and curt, conversational phrasing contribute momentum to rocker “Blocks” (on which he plays soprano) and hard-swinging “Clayland,” and his easy, languorous lyricism adds romance to the slow closer, “Julia.” His bassoon—mostly in overdubbed accompaniment, but as the lead on the minimalist “Backbou”—is more staccato but no less effective thanks to his lush tone. (Wendel also comps himself with melodica on several tunes.)

His bandmates merit praise as well for their versatility and imagination. Guitarist Nir Felder frequently doubles with Wendel on the themes (as do Clayton and Hamasyan), but distinguishes himself with painterly textures such as hard-rock distortion (“Leaving”) and ambient haze (“Blocks”). Bassist Ben Street and drummer Nate Wood are as steady and inventive as they come, especially on the lean tour de force “Jean and Renata.” As Wendel improvises off a single five-note lick, Street and Wood follow him in dead earnest, shifting gears and timbral approaches without ever abandoning their funky vamp. It’s a masterful centerpiece for a very good recording.


March 23, 2012
RAUL D'GAMA ROSE - All About Jazz

There is a beautiful and mysterious quality to multi-instrumentalist Ben Wendel's Frame. It is as if the hot breath from one of his horns has blown some ancient film away to reveal an iridescent object that begins to oscillate and spin, changing colors and hues, mesmerizing as it spins and swings with uncharacteristic swagger. All this seems both real and unreal as Wendel's singular, hypnotic voice unfurls. The saxophonist inhabits a sound as close to singing through the reed as is humanly possible. In so doing, he has perfected vocalizing in the manner of Nat "King" Cole combined with Ben Webster. Such is the velvet and whispering nature of Wendel's tone and texture. Of course, the colors that emerge from the bell of his horn are another matter. These come from a soulful palette that includes such a myriad of hues that they are difficult to count. His musical canvas is so filled with a riot of colors that a musical carnival ensues.

Wendel is also a composer of considerable invention and ingenuity. This album is not called Frame for nothing. For here, the idiom of jazz forms the outer perimeter of the music. The material in the frame is an ever changing painting—a moveable feast for the ear, heart and soul. Wendel paints with fey colors; his music has the effect of fluttering gently like a diaphanous water color work that is wet and dripping as it morphs from one legato passage to another. Thus the work here appears to form a suite of songs—all with beginnings and middles and ends that are tantalizing and drive into the center of the heart. The music of "Chorale," for instance, is like a shimmering dart aimed at that sweet spot in the soul where every ache is unforgettable. Nothing describes that feeling better than Wendel's extraordinarily touching re-imagining of Dizzy Gillespie's classic missive, "Con Alma."

The saxophonist/bassoonist is a fine writer of passionate portraits. Two of his finest are "Jean and Renata" and "Julia." The former paints a playful picture of two characters. Their differences are highlighted by Wendel's inner counterpoint, the two musical lines entwined like a DNA molecule that pirouettes magically to describe the two ladies in question. "Julia" is much more circumspect, as if the composer is portraying someone whom he has a deepening respect for. His melodic line here is more somber and upward-looking.

The musicians on Frame have a marvelous sympathy for, and understanding of, the overall concept of the album. Thus, they play well within themselves while supporting the thesis that the music must swirl and swoop within the framework of an idiom that is constantly changing. In so doing, they create music that is as elastic as jazz will ever be.

Track Listing: Chorale; Clayland; Con Alma; Backbou; Jean and Renata; Blocks; Frame; Leaving; Julia.

Personnel: Ben Wendel: saxophones, bassoon, melodica; Gerald Clayton: piano (1-3); Tigran Hamasyan: piano (4,6,7); Nir Felder: guitar; Adam Benjamin: piano (1,4,6,7), Fender Rhodes (8,9); Ben Street: bass; Nate Wood: drums.

Record Label: Sunnyside Records / Style: Modern Jazz

BEN WENDEL: Critically omitted from everyone’s top 10 lists (CD reviews)

December 21, 2009
Peter Hum / Ottawa Citizen

I know my excuse. I didn’t buy reedman Ben Wendel’s recording Simple Song (Sunnyside) until a few days ago — long after I’d posted my Top 10 list. Having heard the disc a few times, and having been bowled over, I’m surprised that none of the on-the-scene critics in New York, where Wendel is based, thought enough of Simple Song to vault the disc onto their Top 10 lists.

Wendel’s first disc under his own name — he’s on other CDs, most notably those by his multi-genre co-op band Kneebody — Is fantastic, with the Vancouver-born, Los Angeles-raised musician gleaming as an instrumentalist and composer. On tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, and even bassoon and melodica, he’s a striking and distinctive player bursting with ideas, extending the Coltrane – Brecker – McCaslin – Turner lineage. His writing can be intricate (much of the music on Simple Song is not simple),  but it’s definitely ear-catching, with substantial songs building on, among other things, the harmonic material and arranging features of the Kurt Rosenwinkel/Mark Turner duo, Brad Mehldau, and pop. This tune, Trust Fall, is filled with some daring melodic roller coasters. fine solos and some appealing structural surprises.

Here, attesting to his bassoon prowess and composing and arranging chops, is his tune Maupin, surely dedicated to reedman Benny Maupin.

Not one to turn his back on the jazz canon either, Wendel also records John Coltrane’s Lonnie’s Lament (re-cast as an open, 12/8 Latin romp) and Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing (fashioned as a classical recital for Wendel’s overdubbed horns, with soprano saxophone the star). If you doubted Wendel’s love of burning bop, here his charging his way and I mean his way through Wee.  

Simple Song, which came out in April 2009, features Wendel with powerful company, many of whom are twentysomething West Coasters or Californians transplanted to New York. They include pianists Taylor Eigsti, Tigran Hamasyan and Adam Benjamin, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Nate Wood. All have the same contemporary spirit and headiness to make Wendel’s music just that much more vivid than other discs I’ve heard that aspire to be this good. Simple Song has clearly hit me — better late than never — as  a standout for this year, announcing the arriving of a voice in jazz to be reckoned with.

I bought Simple Song because a subsequent disc featuring Wendel, which came out this fall and which I received rather than bought, made almost as big an impression on me. I made it an honourable mention on my Top 10 list, and I’m surprised that it, like Simple Song, has not cracked any other Top 10 lists.  It’s called ACT(Brooklyn Jazz Underground), and it’s a saxophone trio disc with a twist or two, featuring Wendel in a co-op band with fellow West Coast friends bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Wood. ACT is predominantly tumultous and dark-hued, brashly syncopated and intense, although its ballad track, a cover of Elvis Costello’s Shamed Into Love, is spare and lovely, sounding almost like a Billy Strayhorn song at times.

Wendel’s opener, News, its followup, the title track composed by Raghavan, and especially a souped-up version of Sonny Rollins’ Pentup House are top-notch examples of finely balanced, nuanced, high-energy thrashing. Wendel’s capable of long, dizzying lines, sounding at times like a more slippery Branford Marsalis. Raghavan is hugely propulsive and Wood is a fine rough-and-tumble drummer. As they play with all the energy and focus they’re capable of, they’re also tremendously attunded to each other and to the overall shape of each song.

The twists on this saxophone trio disc arise when Wendel overdubs bassoon backgrounds on two tracks, the austere Oldworld, and the CD’s last track, What Was, a stripped down but layered song that also features Wendel’s overdubbed piano chords.
I’d recommend both Simple Song and ACT to jazz fans who want to hear the keen forward-leaning edge of jazz’s modern mainstream — and especially to my fellow critics who might have skipped over their considerable charms.


March 2012
Bobby Reed / Down Beat Magazine

Ben Wendel opens his sophomore album with “Chorale,” a memorable tune that illustrates the saxophonist’s keen ability to balance intellectual curiosity with emotional and melodic impact. It’s a balancing act that he executes gracefully throughout the hour of music presented here—eight originals and a dazzling interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.” On the title track to Frame, Wendel unspools dense, intricate, frenetic clusters of notes with impressive speed. But on the slower song “Leaving,” a wondrous sense of spaciousness and adventure is conjured by long, lovely sax lines that blossom like a flower. Even when Wendel is crafting a straightforward melody, his playing never becomes saccharine. This Eastman School of Music graduate surrounds himself with top-notch talent, and some of the players supporting him on the disc are keyboardist Adam Benjamin and drummer Nate Wood (his bandmates in Kneebody) as well as bassist Ben Street and pianist Gerald Clayton, for whom the insistent track “Clayland” is named. Though Wendel is clearly the leader, he knows exactly when to drop out, as he does during a dynamic, piano-and-drums duo section of the title song. The mellow closing track, “Julia,” is a supremely satisfying conclusion. It feels like a collective exhalation, the culmination of a quest, a quiet way of saying, “We’re here.”


March 12th, 2009
Nate Chinen / New York Times

Though best known as a member of the knockabout jazz-rock band Kneebody, the saxophonist and bassoonist Ben Wendel also has an airier side, as he proves on “Simple Song” (Sunnyside), his often contemplative debut. Celebrating its release here, Mr. Wendel leads an ensemble with the pianist Adam Benjamin, the guitarist Nir Felder, the bassist Ben Street and the drummer Nate Wood.



October 08, 2009
Chris Barton / Los Angeles Times

The jazz saxophonist premiered an as-yet untitled six-part suite. For a guy who named his 2009 solo debut "Simple Song," Ben Wendel isn't a musician afraid of complicated situations.

In a Tuesday night show at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, the young saxophonist stepped away from a set list that served him in rooms such as Café Metropol and the Mint and instead presented the L.A. premiere of an as-yet untitled six-part suite, the end result of earning a New Works Grant from Chamber Music America.

Given that his recent track record on the L.A. scene includes founding the genre-hopping funk-jazz group Kneebody and backing underground laptop adventurer Daedelus, Wendel's ambitious turn toward yet another genre shouldn't come as a surprise. But what was a pleasure to discover is how natural his transition sounded.

Looking like a KCRW-ready singer-songwriter in dark jeans and a snug-fitting jacket, Wendel introduced the 65-minute piece as initially inspired by French Baroque dance forms. And while such talk sounds about as far from jazz tradition as one can get, the end result was lush, evocative and deeply rooted in the genre.

Performing on saxophones, bassoon and the occasional melodica, Wendel was a democratic leader through the intricate and harmonically rich suite, offering plenty of room for his crack, six-piece ensemble to shine.

During a swirling second movement that bore the working title "When Was," mutton-chopped keyboardist Adam Benjamin dived deep into the piece's percolating melody on an effects-heavy Fender Rhodes. He took the composition into wide-open territory that flirted with the most restless tributaries of '70s fusion as well as the more experimental-minded excursions found in modern indie rock.

It was a testament to Wendel's taut arrangement skills that the night never drifted into free-blowing cacophony.

The group seemed to split the difference between generations, with younger players like Benjamin and Thelonious Monk Competition winner Tigran Hamasyan on piano and rock-solid veterans like bassist Darek Oles and guitarist Larry Koonse. An empathetic restraint remained the dominant philosophy for each of the players.

Apart from a fleet-fingered rush through the fourth movement on soprano sax that left him momentarily breathless, much of Wendel's playing offered an understated and evocatively cyclical feel, saving its furthest-reaching explorations for the evening's close.

As if looking to close the night with some fireworks, Wendel's solo on tenor saxophone in the sixth movement swerved through a dramatic series of trills and runs that earned a few "oohs" from the crowd while still preserving the piece's intricate, syncopated backbone.

Working for a young, hoodie-wearing audience consistent with Wendel's current position as adjunct professor of jazz studies at USC, Wendel's elegant compositional shift showed a new aspect of an artist who already was coming into his own with his lovely recent album.

Though Tuesday's piece is still unrecorded, its ephemeral quality captured some of jazz's finest qualities -- it was fresh, ever-evolving and gone as soon as the last note was played. But hopefully not for long.