MUSIC REVIEWS


With ‘The Seasons,’ Ben Wendel Redefines the Musical Encounter

January 21, 2016 / Nate Chinen - The New York Times

“The Seasons,” a vividly imagined collection of duets by the saxophonist and bassoonist Ben Wendel, was one of the standout jazz records of 2015. But it was never released in album form, and took the entire year to hear in full.

Ben Wendel at the Cornelia Street Cafe. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Ben Wendel at the Cornelia Street Cafe. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Mr. Wendel composed each of its 12 pieces for a different partner: peers like the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and personal heroes like the saxophonist Joshua Redman. The project was created as a video series, with each musical encounter filmed in a different location and posted online in free regular installments, like a Duet-of-the-Month Club. The music is intricate and technically imposing, but suffused with consonant melody and aglow with a spark of connection. The highly polished videos, by Alex Chaloff, capture the idea of conversational exchange.

Mr. Wendel, 39, is a naturally inquisitive musician whose credentials branch out beyond jazz. (He briefly toured with Snoop Dogg.) He’s a member of Kneebody, a postmillennial groove band with a sizable following, as well as an accomplished solo artist and producer. His next album, “What We Bring,” due out on Motéma in September, will feature a lithe postbop quartet, with Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass and Henry Cole on drums.

Because Kneebody had worked with Mr. Chaloff, Mr. Wendel conceived “The Seasons” with a videographer in mind. “The way that art is being delivered to the world is just changing so much,” Mr. Wendel said recently at Cornelia Street Café, before a gig with the bassist Matt Brewer. “It’s a constant dialogue now: People enjoy a steady stream of art, and also getting to see a person work in real time.”

Jazz has often lagged behind other genres when it comes to the use of music videos: They’re a luxury or an afterthought, subordinate to the business of albums and gigs. Mr. Wendel didn’t set out to correct that oversight, exactly. “The Seasons” was his response to a set of solo piano pieces by Tchaikovsky. He describes its evolution as a natural process, if hardly effortless: “The easiest idea that I ever came up with, but logistically, just incredibly challenging.”

For the project, Mr. Wendel cast a wide net, creating what amounted to his own cross-sectional portrait of the modern jazz mainstream. A third of his duet partners — Mr. Brewer, the pianists Aaron Parks and Taylor Eigsti and the drummer Eric Harland — will join him on Friday and Saturday at the Jazz Gallery, for the first full performance of the suite. (They’ll play all 12 pieces, along with two extras written for collaborations that didn’t pan out.)

Mr. Wendel grew up in an artistic household in Southern California: His mother, Dale Franzen, was a lyric soprano with the Los Angeles Opera before spearheading the effort to build the Broad Stage, a performing arts center at Santa Monica College. So classical music formed a cornerstone of Mr. Wendel’s education, alongside pop and West Coast hip-hop.

At 14, he formed a jazz group with some classmates: his fellow saxophonist Terrace Martin, now a close associate of the rapper Kendrick Lamar, and the bassist Alfred Darlington, better known as the electronic producer Daedelus. “We would play on the Santa Monica Promenade for tips,” Mr. Wendel said. “For us, doing well was $100 and occasionally a dime bag of weed.”

After attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where he met most of Kneebody, Mr. Wendel gradually established his foothold on the scene. He began releasing his own albums in 2009; “Small Constructions” (Sunnyside), a duo album with the pianist Dan Tepfer, appeared in 2013. That experience of honing a duologue, on record and on tour, had some bearing on “The Seasons.”

What’s most impressive about the suite is how mindfully he set the table for each duet: “November” captures the lyrical ease in Mr. Parks’s pianism, while “August” is an étude distilled from the intervallic language of the tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. “December,” an elegiac reverie with Mr. Akinmusire, slowly gathers density: capitalizing on the artists’ technique, on the sculptural potential of a sound loop and on the reverberant qualities of their setting.

That last variable — the dimensions of a room — plays a pivotal role in “The Seasons,” informing the music in subtle but obvious ways. You notice it when the drummer Jeff Ballard squares off with Mr. Wendel at a Masonic Lodge in Santa Cruz, or when the guitarist Julian Lage opens up his artfully cluttered apartment in a brownstone near Central Park West. “June,” featuring the vocalist Luciana Souza, takes place on home turf of a different sort, at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Mr. Wendel has hardly abandoned the album as a format: “What We Bring” will be another step forward, even though it includes two themes re purposed from “The Seasons.” What the video series accomplished for him is hard to quantify: not a profit, by any stretch, but rather an artistic challenge and a blush of good will.

“It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had, to really think about an artist that I love, get inside their world and try to reimagine that through my writing,” he said. The greatest reward was a moment that happened often, after a duet had been documented: “Many of the duet partners would say something like: ‘I feel as though I wrote this piece.’”

“The Seasons” will be played on Friday and Saturday at the Jazz Gallery, 1160 Broadway, fifth floor; 646-494-3625, jazzgallery­.org. Kneebody performs with Daedelus on March 13 at Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker Street, Manhattan; 212-505-3474, lpr.com.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Copyright © 2016 The New York Times. All rights reserved.


As featured on NPR's All Things Considered

Almost 140 years ago, Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote a solo piano piece for every month of the year called The Seasons. Now saxophonist Ben Wendel has taken this famous body of work and reinterpreted each piece by bringing along a different artist every month. Reviewer Michelle Mercer says through these collaborations, Wendel is giving the listener insight into some of today's sharpest musicians.

TRANSCRIPT / AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It can take many months, even years, for a composer to finish a new piece of music. Ben Wendel challenged himself to create a new piece every month this year. His inspiration goes back to 1876. That's when a St. Petersburg music magazine commissioned the Russian composer Tchaikovsky to do that, to write a new piano piece for every month of that year. The series was called "The Seasons," and here's Tchaikovsky's "June."

(SOUNDBITE OF TCHAIKOVSKY SONG, "JUNE")

CORNISH: Ben Wendel's 2015 version of this project updates the concept.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JUNE WITH LUCIANA SOUZA & BEN WENDEL")

CORNISH: Wendel is also a Grammy-nominated saxophonist. He's been recording a duet performance with a different musician every month this year. And he posts each video for free on his website. Commentator Michelle Mercer has been watching and listening and says Wendel composes each piece with his collaborator in mind.

MICHELLE MERCER, BYLINE: As you watch the video of Ben Wendel and drummer Eric Harland joking around on their way to the studio, it's clear they're headed for a loose fun session of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: APRIL WITH ERIC HARLAND & BEN WENDEL")

ERIC HARLAND: We're going to go up to this high-rise. I'm going up all day.

MERCER: The musicians' banter feeds right into the charged interplay of their music. There's a lot happening here in this "April" installment of "The Seasons."

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: APRIL WITH ERIC HARLAND & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: Wendel on tenor sax is covering both harmony in a lower line and the melody up high. But the main thing this collaboration brings across is a sense of camaraderie, of Wendel being inspired by Harland's levity and his powerful finesse on the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: APRIL WITH ERIC HARLAND & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: With this video series of duets, Wendel wants to showcase the musical personalities of his friends. Here in his "January" interpretation with pianist Taylor Eigsti, both musicians bring propulsive rock energy and jazz improvisation to a classical style.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JANUARY WITH TAYLOR EIGSTI & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: Wendel's circle of musicians all share a genre-combining sensibility. In "The Season's" most recent release, "July," we're transported to a sunny Manhattan apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JULY WITH JULIAN LAGE & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: That of guitarist Julian Lage. The music has the tranquility of a deserted city block on a summer weekend, and Wendel, on the bassoon here, relaxes into Lage's virtuosity so completely they might as well be the only two musicians left in town.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JULY WITH JULIAN LAGE & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: With "The Seasons," Wendel expresses the simple truth that for an artist like him, the experience and shape of a year are defined by his talented friends, and along the way he's giving us insight into some of the sharpest musicians around today.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JULY WITH JULIAN LAGE & BEN WENDEL")

CORNISH: Ben Wendel's final five installments of "The Seasons" will be released on each remaining month of the year at his website, BenWendel.com. Our reviewer is Michelle Mercer.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved.


BEN WENDEL: ACT II

Sept 17, 2015 / Gary Fukushima - LA Weekly

Those who wish to be called creative musicians should actually create music, and hardly no one has done that better recently than Ben Wendel. The saxophonist is in the middle of a year-long, Tchaikovsky-inspired video project called The Seasons. He’s toured with drummer Antonio Sanchez, recently did a week with pianist Gerald Clayton at the Village Vanguard, and he (with Kneebody) will soon share a bill with Snarky Puppy at Royce Hall. Somehow, Wendel found time out of this crazy schedule to go to upstate New York with bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Nate Wood, collaboratively writing and recording an album in three days, their second as a trio. The record (ACT II) builds on the drama created from their first (ACT), with the ACT-ors developing and deepening their roles and chemistry in this superb three-man play.  →  www.laweekly.com/event/act-5942581

 


 Photography Credit: Josh Goleman

 Photography Credit: Josh Goleman

BEN WENDEL: THE SEASONS

Feb 27, 2015 / Nate Chinen - New York Times


A tenor saxophonist, bassoonist and composer with an unassuming breadth of style, Ben Wendel has made a subspecialty out of duologue, recently and notably with the pianist Dan Tepfer. For his new project — “The Seasons,” inspired by the Tchaikovsky piano suite of the same name — Mr. Wendel is unveiling a new duet every month this year, with video freely available at benwendel.com/theseasons. He conceived each piece with a handpicked collaborator in mind, like the pianist Taylor Eigsti, whose playing on “January” suggests a swirl of deft angularities and busy composure. “February,” which was posted on Feb. 23, is a more driving proposition: Mr. Wendel and one of his saxophone influences, Joshua Redman, dart through its syncopated form with an intense but collegial give and take. Both videos spotlight terrifically assured performances with sharp production values, raising expectations for Mr. Wendel’s 10 remaining installments, with partners yet to be revealed.

CLICK TO READ ORIGINAL ARTICLE: www.nytimes.com


 


BEN WENDEL & DAN TEPFER: Sons of Opera Moms Go Far Afield

March 8, 2013 / Nate Chinen - New York Times


On the closing track of their new album, “Small Constructions,” Ben Wendel and Dan Tepfer switch instruments, improvising a dialogue from scratch. That exercise in uncertainty revealed something essential about the personalities of Mr. Tepfer, a pianist by training, and Mr. Wendel, usually a saxophonist.

“Ben seeks stability,” Mr. Tepfer said, “and really since I’ve been a tiny kid I seek instability.”

That difference plays out subtly on the album, their first as a duo, due out on Tuesday on Sunnyside Records. They laughed a little nervously about the “Odd Couple” implications for their tour, which will bring them to the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea on Wednesday.

Mr. Wendel, 37, near right, trained at the Eastman School of Music, where he met most of his partners in Kneebody, a band of new-breed fusionistas. He has worked in hip-hop and pop, and released two albums of his own exacting chamber jazz, playing not only saxophones but also bassoon and melodica, as he does on the new album.

Mr. Tepfer, 31, began studying classical piano at 6 but received a degree in astrophysics before seeking out formal jazz training. He has played often in a duo with the saxophonist Lee Konitz, but earned even wider acclaim for “Goldberg Variations/Variations,” a 2011 solo album featuring that Bach work interpreted both classically and with improvisational flair.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

“Small Constructions” is a breakthrough for both its musicians. It features three elegant originals apiece, along with a songbook standard, a Handel variation and choice material by Lennie Tristano and Thelonious Monk.

Both musicians said that they had made their album with a freedom specific to their jazz generation. “We’re in this position of just trying to make music we like to listen to,” Mr. Tepfer said.

They spoke with Nate Chinen about their opera moms, getting along on tour and the permeability of jazz in our time. These are excerpts from the conversation.

SO YOU GUYS LIVE IN THE SAME BUILDING IN BROOKLYN?

Ben Wendel: Yes, as of September. I moved to New York three years ago from L.A., and Dan was one of the first people I met. My mom is a former opera singer, and she has an opera singer friend who is friends with Dan’s opera singer mom.

WHAT DOES THAT SHARED CLASSICAL BACKGROUND BRING?

Dan Tepfer: We often have a similar idea about what’s coming next.

Wendel: There’s this flow and logic that seems to have gotten infused in the way we improvise together.

YOU BOTH BELONG TO A LOOSE COALITION OF PLAYERS WHO HAVE THIS TOTAL FLUIDITY WITH STYLE.

Wendel: Someone recently defined jazz as the music that jazz musicians play at the time that they’re living. That’s us. We love Radiohead and Bon Iver, and we love Mussorgsky, and we love Duke Ellington. Hopefully that’s all going to be expressed through what we create.

AS YOU GET INTO PLAYING NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, WHAT DO YOU THINK IS GOING TO HAPPEN?

Tepfer: [Laughs] We’re entering into some couple vibe. This morning we left the building together to go to a radio interview. I’m compulsively late, and Ben was like, “If you keep doing this on the tour, I’m going to start getting very passive-aggressive with you.”

Wende:l Duo playing is really intense. You don’t get to lean on anybody. There’s no rhythm section. Usually when we get done with a concert I’m literally sweating and my heart is pounding from the exertion of that much playing, that much ——

Tepfer: Mental focus.

Wendel: You do not get to snooze.

Tepfer: The duo format has the most potential for transformation. The bigger the group, I think, the more set things become. In our case whatever can happen on a tour like this probably will.
 


BEN WENDEL QUARTET

February 14, 2013 / Nate Chinen - New York Times

Ben Wendel is a saxophonist and bassoonist who has worked in an impressive range of small-group settings, and a record producer who earned a recent Grammy nomination for the Gerald Clayton album “Life Forum.” Commissioned by the Jazz Gallery to perform new music, Mr. Wendel will lead a quartet that includes Mr. Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass and Henry Cole on drums.

Bench_Pic.jpg
 

JAZZ REVIEWS: BEN WENDEL / DAN TEPFER'S SMALL CONSTRUCTIONS

April 2nd, 2013 / Chris Barton - Los Angeles Times
 

Though Ben Wendel and Dan Tepfer could be considered newcomers as compared with 75-year-old saxophone master Charles Lloyd (who also recently released a duet album, "Hagar's Song," with pianist Jason Moran), they show as much restless invention on "Small Constructions."

While still a duet, the album lives up to its name with some judicious multi-tracking, allowing Wendel (co-leader of the genre-skipping jazz-rock group Kneebody) to seamlessly switch to melodica and bassoon, such as "Still Play," the opener, and "Gratitude," which expands with a quiet grace. Tepfer, who justly earned raves in 2011 for tackling and then improvising to Bach's Goldberg Variations, is as much a standout with the insistent "Nines" and the tumbling "Rygabag."

The duo also pays tribute to the classics, offering a breezy take on Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica" and "Ask Me Now" as well as Handel's Variation 1 in D minor with equal, complimentary affection, proving again that even with only two voices, there are seemingly endless avenues to harmony.
 


LIVE: BEN WENDEL AT BARNSDALL GALLERY THEATER

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.