Ben Wendel - The Seasons

Label: Motema, 2018

Personnel – Ben Wendel: saxophone, bassoon; Aaron Parks: piano; Gilad Hekselman: guitar; Matt Brewer: bass; Eric Harland: drums.

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The Seasons is not a new conceptual project by saxophonist and bassoonist Ben Wendel, a founding member of the eclectic band Kneebody, whose expressive tone jabs as much as bewitches. Still, this is the first time he presents it on record. For that purpose, he gathered a remarkable quintet harmonically driven by pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist Gilad Hekselman, and all propelled by the rhythmic bond of bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland. In 2015, the saxophonist released 12 music videos on YouTube, corresponding to 12 original chamber duets that aimed to describe each month. The idea, introduced by classical Russian composer Tchaikovsky in 1876, gains now contemporary proportions with Wendel’s fluid stream of songs.

On “January”, despite the wintry connotations that the month implies, there’s a total absence of coldness in its ternary fluency due to the ardent way Hekselman and Wendel conduct their improvisations. Instead, that wintry torpor is left to “August”, a grey ballad that becomes darker and agitated as it moves forward.

Wendel is abrasively lyric in his solos, attaining climatic heights on pieces such as “February”, a confluence of vibrant post-bop and robust rock with a hint of Brazilian rhythmic flair; and “June”, a beautifully layered story influenced by post-bop and classical music, where the beseeching tenor of the bandleader reaches an extensive timbral range. The urbane pianism of Parks is not only noticeable on this latter tune, but also on “July”, a friendly and enthusiastic pop-meets-folk number melodically driven by bassoon; “September”, an exuberant funk rock title whereupon he excels in the art of comping and improvisation; and on the soulful “November”, where an indestructible pop/rock energy serves extemporizations by Brewer and Hekselman.

The guitarist, who shares an undeniable musical chemistry with the saxophonist, infuses contrasting folk textures on the Metheny-esque “May”, where the suggested crossover jazz takes the shape of a blues. Guitar and bassoon are complimentary forces on the effect-drenched “December”, a more contemplative piece that draws both mystery and enchantment. Harland’s drumming feels loosened here as required, yet, he demonstrates to have a conversational side when proclaimed sole accompanist of Wendel on the introductory section of “April”.

March” takes us to cozy places with its rich harmonies and deliberate bossa nova accent, whereas “October” carries a primordially Afro touch besides the electro surface that confers it a modernly trippy aspect.

The Seasons is a wonderful, multi-colored work, a sagacious demonstration of Wendel's capacities. It’s an album that, deservedly, will be among the natural choices for best of the year.

 Grade  A+

Grade A+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - January ► 02 - February ► 06 - June