Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: Small Constructions – Dan Tepfer & Ben Wendel

Personnel: Ben Wendel: melodica, bassoon, saxophones; Dan Tepfer: piano, Fender Rhodes piano

I really enjoyed Ben Wendel’s recording, Frame, so I couldn’t resist checking out his new duet recording, Small Constructions, with keyboardist Dan Tepfer.

“Still Play” has electric piano, piano, and soprano sax on an upper mid-tempo, abstract theme.  Then bassoon comes in on a repeated background phrase.  Tepfer plays a nice, Chick Corea-ish solo on piano, followed by a thoughtful, interesting soprano sax solo from Wendel.  The soprano sax and piano then play in unison and then have some dual improvisation with bassoon as background, on which the cut fades out.

The theme of Monk’s “Pannonica” gets a fairly Baroque interpretation from Tepfer on piano and Wendel on tenor sax.  Wendel’s tone sounds here like Stan Getz’s, maybe even a bit fuller, and his improvised phrases sound Getz-ish, too.  Tepfer and Wendel trade eights.  This is some elegant and serious but playful music.  The cut has a lovely, gentle close. 

Wendel’s composition “Jean and Renata” has a lower mid-tempo, elusive, abstract theme, somewhat reminiscent of Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs.  Wendel (on  tenor) and Tepfer (on piano) improvise a bit but don’t really generate any heat.

Lennie Tristano’s “Line Up” starts with an electric piano ostinato, then piano and tenor sax in unison on an intricate, swinging line.  Tepfer then plays the theme by himself on what sounds like a clavinet, and then tenor and piano are in unison again.  Wendel constructs a slick soprano sax solo mostly out of continuous eighth notes, mirroring the tune’s intricate theme.  After a quick sax/piano re-reading of the theme, the clavinet and soprano trade fours, with electric piano still in the background, preceding a clever ending to the cut composed of multiple ascending lines.

Wendel’s “Line” is a two-minute interlude, really just a pause in the more substantial proceedings, which starts with a single, lower register phrase that meanders over the piano.  Wendel then joins in on melodica with a contrasting phrase.

Tepfer’s “Nines” has piano and tenor sax in unison on a brisk, upper mid-tempo, Phillip Glass-type line, which moves into a more conventional melody, like an espionage movie theme.  Then with a constant eighth-note theme in the background, Wendel and Tepfer trade improvised sections, Wendel displaying some remarkable control over the altissimo register and Tepfer again sounding Chick Corea-ish.   

Tepfer’s “Gratitude” has a romantic beginning with Tepfer on piano.  Then piano and tenor sax join in unison on a slow, out-of-tempo, elegiac theme.  Wendel plays a deeply melodic solo, like he is composing on the horn.  With tenor and bassoon in the background, Tepfer plays a similarly melodic solo.  Tenor sax and piano repeat the theme to close the cut.

Tepfer and Wendel provide a light-hearted, relaxed reading of Monk’s “Ask Me Now,” reminding us how good a tune this is.  Tepfer then plays a pretty, swinging solo with a touch of Brad Mehldau, Wendel providing some light tenor accompaniment in the shadows.  Wendel also provides a pretty, swinging solo. 

Tepfer’s “Rygabag” is a bluesy, mid-tempo, 3/4 time tune with piano and tenor sax in unison.  Wendel plays a passionate, probing improvisation, again making delicate use of the altissimo, after which the tune falls away.

Tepfer (on piano) and Wendel (on tenor sax) do a melancholy, slightly twisted interpretation of “Darn That Dream,” though they play the bridge pretty straight.  It’s a lovely reading of the tune, but they leave off any improvisation.

“Variation in D Minor” has Tepfer meditatively improvising over a background of woodwinds performing Handel’s piece.  The contrast between the jazz improvisation and the classical piece is an interesting effect, but to my mind it doesn’t quite work.

The recording closes with “Oblique Strategy.”  This cut is just some meterless, wandering improvising by Wendel on alto sax over slow piano chords.  Unfortunately, this is probably the weakest cut on the recording.

Overall, Small Constructions is a fine, fresh contribution to the saxophone/piano duo corpus, something like what you would have gotten if Stan Getz did a duet album with Chick Corea just after they had graduated from a master’s program in jazz performance.  This is highly accomplished, engaging music, though the improvisations (as good as they are) are a bit too brief to make a significant statement, and the music may be a little too abstract and academic for some.  On the other hand, there remains something earthy and “old school” about Wendel’s playing, which adds to its appeal.  His fine sound on the tenor and soprano saxophones is more evident here than on the more musician-heavy recording, Frame.  For those who enjoyed Frame, Small Constructions is not a disappointment, though it feels a couple of tapas shy of a full meal. 


  1. "Oblique Strategy" is Dan playing alto and Ben playing piano.

  2. Interesting; I didn't know this (obviously). Maybe this is why this cut struck me as (comparatively) weak.