Ben Wendel at Village Vanguard 2/28/18 (by Kazemde George)

PERSONNEL: Ben Wendel (tenor saxophone), Aaron Parks (piano), Gilad Hekselman (guitar), Matt Brewer (bass), Eric Harland (drums)

SET LIST: February: Joshua Redman, November: Aaron Parks, July: Julian Lage, August: Mark Turner, May: Shai Maestro, October: Gilad Hekselman, Unforeseeable (all by Wendel)

HIGHLIGHTS:  Eric Harland’s playing was supportive, joyous, and contagious. During several sections he was also hollering and “wooing” so frequently that it almost constituted another voice in the music. 

“The Seasons” was a unique musical project undertaken by Ben Wendel in 2015. In each month, he composed a song dedicated to one of his musical collaborators, making up a cycle of 12 songs that showcases Wendel abilities as a player and composer while exposing the influences he has drawn from his colleagues. The project culminated in a series of videos of Wendel performing these pieces as duos, each along with the song’s dedicatee.

Like some of his favorite collaborators, Joshua Redman and Mark Turner, Wendel sports a powerful sound, a nimble altissimo range, and an expanded intervallic approach to improvisation, which is especially impressive given his strict adherence to tuning and uniform timbre. His playing was also very rhythmic, and he often used sub-divided note-groupings to build polyrhythms, and push the beat forward along with the rest of the band. His punchy attack and rhythmic integrity paired well with Brewer’s playing which was equally locked-in and confident. On his only solo of the night, Brewer played lyrically, and projected his melodies with clarity, and a seemingly effortless adherence to the groove.

Parks and Hekselman worked together as a comping unit, with Hekselman adding some moody textures, and Parks subtly marking chords, each in conjunction with one another and with the soloist. In his own solos Hekselman played the straight man. He stayed true to the compositions, and presented his ideas clearly and with a clear tone. On “November,” Parks delivered a dialed in a bluesy solo, but in others solos he ventured more towards abstraction, drawing up energy with flurries of notes, and contrary rhythms.

The compositions had a musical clarity with each piece framed around a distinct bass-line, rhythmic motif or melody, revealing the original format for the songs as duo performances. The ensemble did a great job of filling out these pre-distilled ideas, and with a lineup of very virtuosic players, it was refreshing how they all focused on building the songs, and allowing the strong musical cadences to land and be fully digested by the audience. Some of the set’s most exciting and satisfying moments happened when the whole band nailed the song’s theme and bass-line, accompanied by Harland’s audible hoots, and churning grooves.

by Kazemde George