3. Con Alma
5. Jean and Renata
CD Quality - 16 bit / 44.1 khz
Iconoclastic composer Frank Zappa once wrote, “The most important thing in art is the frame... without this humble appliance, you can’t know where the art stops and the real world begins.”
With his second solo album, Frame, saxophonist, bassoonist and composer Ben Wendel presents a gallery show of nine new pieces that approach that “humble appliance” — the frame — from multi-faceted angles: a snapshot of a pair of French patrons of the arts (“Jean and Renata”); an exotic portrait in rhythm (“Backbou”); the harmonic reframing of a masterpiece (“Con Alma”). But ultimately what the album amounts to is a framing of the self — a self-portrait by an artist who’s come to define his own singular voice.
For Ben Wendel, that portrait comes in the form of a collage, layering diverse influences and styles into an evocative whole. Despite Zappa’s compartmentalized definition, of course, everyday life and artistic life have a tendency to bleed into one another — even across the boundaries of the frame — and Wendel’s music can’t help but reflect the composer’s real world reality. Written during and just after the west coast native’s tumultuous move to New York City, Frame traces the emotional arc of that period — the bittersweet tang of leaving the familiar co-existing with the tense expectancy of new experience, and the vibrant bustle of the artistic mecca he now calls home.
The wistful hope captured by “Leaving” is the album’s most direct statement on the move. The feeling of loss and departure was amplified by the death of Wendel’s great-aunt, a powerful figure in his childhood, and outspoken supporter of his music. “I don’t usually write thematic music,” Wendel says, “but at the same time I was leaving my family in Los Angeles and moving to New York, this woman who had been a big part of my life had passed away. I had a strange feeling of excitement and melancholy and was thinking about the passage of time and mortality, and it all came out as a piece of music.”
Wendel’s east coast surroundings are more concretely evidenced by the incredible ensemble of musicians he’s assembled for the album: keyboardist Adam Benjamin and drummer Nate Wood, his bandmates in the Grammy-nominated group Kneebody; bassist Ben Street; guitarist Nir Felder; and Gerald Clayton and Tigran Hamasyan on piano.
In combining these musicians, all frequent collaborators, Wendel had a distinct ensemble sound in mind, one he carefully crafts into a collective voice. Most of the pieces were penned with these specific instrumentalists in mind; many were directly inspired by them. “Clayland” is named for Gerald Clayton, while “Backbou” was meant for Tigran Hamsyan, who Wendel refers to as “a scholar of rhythm.” The title refers to master Ghanaian musician Malem Mustafa Bakbou, whom Wendel met and played with while on tour in Morocco with Hamasyan. “He plays music that’s nearly 400 years old,” Wendel explains, “a classic example of folkloric music where the rhythm would be impossible to notate. I wrote this piece before I went to Morocco, but the title seemed appropriate since the piece moves through different meters and travels in a way that’s not obvious.”
From their extensive experience working together in Kneebody, Wendel is intimately familiar with bandmates Adam Benjamin and Nate Wood’s musical vocabularies. “It’s commonly accepted that there’s no one who does what Adam does on the Fender Rhodes,” Wendel says. As for Wood, he adds, “Nate’s someone who can do four different things with each of his limbs.”
Every musician on the album was called on to navigate the tricky border between jazz and classical, interstitial spaces where many composers can lose all direction, but where Wendel feels most comfortably framed. Classically trained but deeply rooted in the jazz tradition, Wendel’s compositions move fluidly between the two realms, through composed sections evolving into improvised passages and back again. It’s the sort of dichotomy that runs throughout his music — not quite “fusion,” but something wholly original.
“I’ve always loved writing really simple melodies with complex voice leading and harmony underneath,” he says, a concept which comes to the fore on the album’s opener, the fanfare-like “Chorale.” The piece follows an identically-titled song from his debut solo album, Simple Song, establishing a “theme & variation” trend that he hopes to continue on subsequent releases.
In addition to tenor and soprano sax, Wendel plays melodica and bassoon, an instrument he’s wielded with a wildly eclectic range of artists — from Brazilian legend Dori Caymmi and Cuban drum giant Ignacio Berroa to pop icon Prince and hip-hop superstar Snoop Dogg. A graduate of New York’s Eastman School of Music, Wendel was a winner in the 2007 International Songwriting Competition and received an ASCAP Jazz Composer Award, as well as the 2008 and 2011 Chamber Music America “New Works Grant.” In 2007, he collaborated with conductor Kent Nagano to produce a series of concerts for the Festpeil Plus in Munich, Germany and more recently conducted a re-creation of Charlie Parker’s “Bird With Strings” at Jazz At Lincoln Center, with guests Charles McPherson and Wes “Warm Daddy” Anderson.
Wendel is currently based in Brooklyn, where he’s establishing himself as one of the jazz scene’s most evocative & progressive young musicians. It’s no surprise that Wendel chose to place himself in the epicenter of culture & eclecticism, New York City — where, like a painting without a frame, “you can’t know where the art stops and the real world begins.”
released February 28, 2012
Ben Wendel - saxophones, bassoon & melodica
Gerald Clayton - piano (1, 2 & 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