Wednesday, April 19, 2023

To Listen is to Wonder, To Dream


Photo: Dave Stapleton
Ben Wendel, born in British Columbia, raised in Los Angeles, and now living in Brooklyn NY, is a multi-faceted musician. He plays tenor and soprano saxophones, bassoon, synths, and percussion, composes, arranges, produces, and more. He was founding member of the instrumental ensemble Kneebody and he has worked with artists such as Snoop Dogg, Linda May Han Oh, Eric Harland, Prince, and many others.  He's issued eight albums as a leader plus produced sessions for Gerald Clayton, Dan Tepfer, and Dave Cook.  Wendel has played on sessions led by Moonchild, keyboardist Tigran Hamasyan, percussionist Adam Rudolph, and pianist Taylor Eigsti (among others).  He currently is adjunct faculty at the New School in New York City and conducts masterclasses around North America.  His recordings cover a plethora of styles from from jazz-fusion to "straight-ahead" to exploratory but with an ear towards strong melodic lines.

His new album "All One" is Wendel's second for Edition Records––it's basically a solo album with guests but what a lineup. The six-program song opens with "I Loves You Porgy".  The Ira & George Gershwin classic from "Porgy and Bess" features Wendel on saxes, bassoon, and synth bass supporting Cécile McLorin Salvant whose emotionally stunning vocal stands out.  His arrangement for the reed orchestra (all parts played by Wendel) is a delight from start to finish. Later in the program, Jose Jamés inhabits "Tenderly" (music by Walter Gross, lyrics by Jack Lawrence)––the 1946 tune has been recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Clooney, Nat "King" Cole, Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald, Eric Dolphy, and many others. Wendel's arrangement is stunning not only when the reeds support the voice but how he "paints" the background behing the handsome tenor sax solo.   

Photo: Dave Stapleton
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard joins Wendel for the powerful and wide-ranging "Wanderers" (composed by the leader: listen below)––the orchestral arrangement reminds this listener of Julius Hemphill but note how the piece "opens" in the middle and takes on the feel of a progressive big band. Guitarist Bill Frisell leads the reeds through the handsome aural-scape of his piece "Throughout".  Wendel's arrangement creates layers of sound, some in the front of the mix, others farther back plus the cushion he creates for the guitarist is quite lovely.  Ther Wendel original "Speak Joy" opens with synth bass, bassoons murmuring in both speakers, the lovely flute sounds of Elena Pinderhughes moving the melody forward.  Lower tones dominate the background for the flute and soprano sax solos; there's a splendid moment when the two lead instruments unite and play the melody in unison as overdubbed flutes and saxes swirl behind them.

"All One" closes with the third of three Wendel originals, the atmospheric "In Anima".  Here, the acoustic piano of Tigran Hamasyan joins the synths to create a melancholic and trance-like background for a tenor sax (with effects) solo that threatens to veer off. That leads to a piano solo that builds off the rhythmic pattern and sets the stage for a return to the original melody. Now, it's played by bassoons that are joined by the tenor sax which then steps forward to bring the piece and the album to its gentle close.

"All One" is Ben Wendel's "pandemic" album. Recorded over a period of 18 months (between the Fall of 2020 through March 2022), some artists remotely at home, others in studios, the music never sounds stiff or overly arranged but it's also not a series of jams.  Each track stands out yet the "through-line" is that continued creative endeavors can survive and thrive in the face of an uncertain future. At times playful, other times quite serious, there is tenderness, resolve, joy, love, and even ferocity that makes the listener dig in for repeated listenings. Highly recommended!

For more information about Ben Wendel, go to To hear and to purchase the album, go to

Hear "Wanderers" with Terence Blanchard:

No comments:

Post a Comment