Saxophonist Ben Wendel’s Frame was judged to be one of the best jazz CDs of 2012 on Peter Hum’s Ottawa Citizen Jazzblog, and I hadn’t previously heard any of Wendel’s work, so I thought I would give Frame a listen.
Frame begins with “Chorale,” which has a slow, regal theme
played by tenor sax, piano, and guitar.
The solos begin with Gerald Clayton on piano and then Nir Felder on
guitar, playing against-the-grain lines with a reverb-y sound. Wendel then comes in for a tenor sax solo,
employing a clean and light (but not weak) sound, playing lines that fit
perfectly against the quiet backdrop of the ensemble. “Clayland” begins with a disjointed theme, and
then it moves into a second, more intricate theme. Wendel performs an extended tenor solo, playing
straightforward but interesting phrases and showing off good control of the
altissimo register. Clayton then plays a
fluid solo. The ensemble then repeats
the two disparate themes for an uncluttered close to the cut.
Wendel then does a rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma”
with just himself on tenor and Gerald Clayton on piano. Wendel sounds at first like Jan Garbarek,
bending and sliding into notes and using a breathier tone. In his solo, the warmth of his sound is more
evident with just the piano for accompaniment, and he spins out swirling, complex
lines (also reminiscent of Garbarek). Clayton,
in his solo, sounds like Keith Jarrett, with Jarrett’s flowing piano touch. Wendel has subtly altered the tune’s harmony
and adds his own little angular line, played in unison with Clayton, to close
the tune. This is a fresh and elegant
version of “Con Alma,” sort of like “ECM meets Dizzy Gillespie,” so pretty
it could fit in on a program of Christmas music. At this point in the recording, you start to get
a sense of Wendel’s maturity as a composer and a musician. Next up is “Backbou,” which starts with a
light, Caribbean feel, and has Wendel (on bassoon) and Felder playing the theme
in unison. Tigran Hamasyan plays a Chick
Corea-ish solo. Wendel improvises
briefly on bassoon and then the ensemble puts together a strong section to finish the
Next up is “Jean and Renata,” which has the Wendel on tenor
sax with just bass and drums. The tune’s
melody, taken at a mid-tempo, is very subtle, and Wendel seamlessly moves from
the melody into his tenor sax improvisation, starting slowly, then increasing
the intensity, easily sliding into and out of the altissimo and occasionally
dipping into the bottom of the horn. (An
interesting aspect of Wendel’s improvising is that, though he is clearly in the
spotlight, he also seems to remain part of the ensemble. I think Wendel always has the big picture in
mind.) Nate Wood provides lively but unobtrusive
accompaniment here on drums. Wendel then
states and plays around with the tune’s melody to close out the
performance. This is another nice break
from the more composition-heavy cuts and highlights Wendel’s versatility. Bassist Ben Street begins “Blocks” with a
straightforward, musical solo against a repeated simple pattern of piano chords
(which sounds a little like the background for a Billy Joel tune). Wendel, on soprano sax this time, plays the slightly
enigmatic melody in unison with Felder.
Improvising on soprano, as on tenor, he displays a clear, light sound
and straightforward but still interesting phrasing.
Wendel then plays a line in unison with Felder’s lightly distorted
guitar to close out the cut.
“Frame” has an complex theme, played at high speed by tenor
sax and piano in unison. Wendel plays a
skillful, fleet solo with gliding lines and altissimo shrieks. Hamasyan plays another Corea-ish solo. Then there is some ensemble work during which
Wood especially shines, and then the theme is played again along with some
strong ensemble work to finish the performance.
“Leaving” is a pretty, though ambivalent, mid-tempo ballad. Wendel plays a lyrical tenor solo free of flashy
technique and clichés. Next up is an
impressionistic, nearly classical-sounding piano solo (though it isn’t clear
from the personnel notes who the pianist is; Adam Benjamin, I think). After the ensemble plays the melody again, Felder
plays a slick guitar solo. The recording
ends with “Julia,” a slower song with a slightly melancholy melody, charming
enough to deserve lyrics. Wendel plays a
brief, meandering tenor solo, and then there is an acoustic piano solo
(Benjamin again, I think) that is mostly composed of chords. Then Felder’s slightly distorted guitar sound
and Wendel’s bassoon join the ensemble to end the cut.
It’s interesting to compare Frame to Donny McCaslin’s
Casting for Gravity (reviewed previously here on AJS). Both recordings attempt a kind of merger of
jazz and pop, and, to my mind, Frame is more successful in this, having more
imaginative and fresher compositions and arrangements than Casting and a better
balance between composition and improvisation.
Wendel doesn’t display the sheer virtuosity on Frame that McCaslin does
on Casting (though he is an excellent player), and Frame doesn’t achieve the
intensity that Casting sometimes does, but I believe Frame presents a clearer
and stronger musical vision. I can see why
Peter Hum put it on his list of the best jazz recordings of 2012. If Frame is any indication, Ben Wendel is
bound to be one of the movers and shakers of jazz in the years to come.