Saturday, March 17, 2018

Herald of spring: Well-seasoned quintet jazz from tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel

Out of a project inspired by a Tchaikovsky suite for solo piano, saxophonist Ben Wendel was inspired
Aaron Parks (left), for whom Ben Wendel's "November" was written.
to write a piece for each month of the year, dedicating each to a musician he admires. As a jazz specialist, the writing was a launching pad for duo performances incorporating improvisational  freedom, in which each honoree participated as a performing partner with Wendel.

Expanded to a quintet format, the compositions became the basis for Wendel's "Seasons" band, which played two sets Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Filling out the group were some illustrious young players, with a locally boosted star, Aaron Parks, at the piano. Parks was 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the Indianapolis-based American Pianists Association. Other "Seasons" personnel: Gilad Hekselman, guitar; Matt Brewer, bass, and Kendrick Scott, drums.

Textures of Wendel compositions are dense, but the group's internal rapport ensures that everything flows. For example, "November," written for Parks, allowed the pianist to wax introspective in an unaccompanied introduction. When the full band came in, there was an ingrained moodiness to the material, with Scott laying down a propulsive backbeat. That encouraged bluesy inflections in the solos, which were interspersed with ensemble returns. It was down-home goes to graduate school. The performance ended with a long diminuendo as a four-note tag marked the settling down.

Wendel sounded comfortable in all ranges of his horn, and folded into his playing a wealth of curlicues and flourishes. "May" displayed the positive buoyancy of his muse, with lots of ornamentation. Hekselman's solo took an exotic turn. The general favoritism toward up-tempo pieces was interrupted by "August," with its long tones and a sparkling Parks solo niftily accompanied by Scott's hand-drumming.

"October," written for Hekselman, gave the timbre-sensitive guitarist a chance to make a gamelan-like excursion in his solo that soon morphed into an Afrobeat vibe as the ensemble entered. "July" was notable for a titanic yet coherent bass solo, as well as for a tasty coda punctuated by Scott's precise patterning on rims.

The last piece of the first set was the one tune not taken from Wendel's "Seasons" project. "Unforeseeable" started with crisp solo drums and cymbals, with Brewer soon putting a foundation underneath the percussive churning. The piece drew hearty applause and whoops and demands for an encore. That entailed a return to the monthly theme, as "April," written for the drummer Eric Harland, was put on display, with naturally a more intense focus on the estimable Scott.

Relaxed and amiable in his bandstand manner, Wendel draws from his sidemen the same attention to taking care of business that he demands of himself. No one stays idle for long in this band, yet the listener doesn't get the impression of clutter. The sound is high-powered, but there's always something new to absorb and enjoy. Whatever the season, this isn't the sort of impactful music that tempts you to say: "OK, very good — now give me a break!" It's rather like: "Let's have some more."