Friday, October 5, 2018

Ben Wendel: Tracing the seasons in jazz, month by month, through original compositions

Ben Wendel responds to the seasons.
Nature lay at one's doorstep a dozen decades ago, when Peter Tchaikovsky wrote his piano suite "The Seasons," and the changes of season were something you couldn't help feeling through your senses. Today the seasons, despite alarming meteorological events, are more likely to imprint themselves upon us city-dwellers through our appointment calendars and celebrations.

That raises an interesting question of interpretation when listening to "The Seasons," saxophonist Ben Wendel's new recording (Motema), for which Tchaikovsky was an inspiration: Do human or natural events have the upper hand in these 12 compositions, each titled after a month of the year and arranged chronologically? Maybe Wendel had very few programmatic intentions, so what I sometimes hear as abstract commentary on the weather is a reflection on that month's holidays (where applicable) or simply the deeply personal place of each month in Ben Wendel's life.

On the whole, I like the balance of compositional and improvisational heft in these 12 pieces. Here and there, Wendel may suppress his spontaneous personality in favor of putting the composition foremost. But in those cases, as in "February," he has a sideman ready to take up the slack, as guitarist Gilad Hekselman does here.

"January" has a tentative feeling, so I'm guessing winter weather is less in the background than the self-questioning that transition to a new year imposes upon us all. "March" opens up space for extensive piano ruminations by Aaron Parks, who captured the American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellowship here in 2001.  Other members of Wendel's adept quartet are Matt Brewer, bass, and Eric Harland, drums.

"April" gets frisky with indications of spring's outburst. There's more percussion presence, and the late guitar entrance is like the onset of buds becoming blossoms. A favorite track after a couple of listenings to "The Seasons" is "May," with its leaping, sassy theme and ornamented line. It's all nicely tied together, and is perhaps the disc's best indication of the band's high comfort level.

Comes "June" and one finds more resonance around the sax, and something of the lyrical effusions of the unanchored kind long evident in the playing of Jan Garbarek. "July" is more relaxed, but "August" moves the listener back into ECM hot-air-balloon stuff. Yet fans of this and of Wendel's playing in particular will be grateful for the exhibition he provides himself here.

"September" finds the quartet in a funky mood, getting back to business, and the piece is just the right length, "October" doubles down on the bluesy feeling. With the coming of "November," is there a weather commentary in the grayness of mood I hear? Regardless, it's a good sort of gray, with lots of Parks setting the tone. It's the kind of piece that, were there still a fair number of jazz radio stations around, might be marketed as suggested for radio play.

"November" is a winner, but the year's last month seems to find Wendel of a mind to pack everything in. Is "December" hinting at exhaustion amid all the year-end excitement? Well, let's leave it at this: even to have such questions continually alive in the listener's mind points to the attractiveness of Wendel's ambition as both composer and bandleader. And his mates help him deliver his impressions handsomely.

[Photo by Josh Goleman]