Ben Wendel ‘What We Bring’ (Motéma) 4/5

ben-wendelBen Wendel is a saxophonist, composer and band leader, born in Vancouver, raised in LA and currently living in New York. I have to admit I hadn’t come across him before now, but as soon as I gave his latest release “What We Bring” a spin, I was immediately drawn in by its depth of sound and mature, contemporary vibe. This album is in fact Wendel’s 15th release as band leader. Having recorded for Sunnyside Records, Concord Records and Brainfeeder, one would imagine his name is not only well known but also well respected across many borders and this latest release on Motéma Music can surely only add to his cv in a highly positive way. Why? Because this is skillful, intelligent, brave and engaging music being written and performed with style and panache. The quality of both the writing and the musicianship is simply outstanding. Both as a unit, and individually, Wendel and his band take the bull by the horns and provide the listener with music that is both thoughtful and exciting in equal measure.
Wendel is a naturally inquisitive musician with his own voice. The musicians accompanying him do so in an expert way; with a listening ear, taking in the saxophonist’s ideas and working with them in an often subtle, understated way that just adds to the lovely feel of the music they are making. Wendel’s core quartet is made up of Gerald Clayton on piano, Joes Sanders on bass and Henry Cole on drums who join the saxophonist. The first thing that strikes me with this album is the luscious sound of the brass as the opening track “Amian” oozes a lush quality all of its own. A startlingly inventive, yet subtle piece of music, this really does kick off the album in style. I’m really taken by the way the composer often appears to refuse to take the obvious route with his music. Listening to the wonderful “Doubt” one gets the impression there’s an inherent edginess to his thinking, even when the tune is almost a ballad, as this is. The clever use of drums that sound as if they shouldn’t be there and yet actually are perfect for the track, is just one example of many I could use to highlight the intelligence behind the music. But that’s not all by any means; there’s a healthy dose of raw energy and passion going on here too. Just listen to the driving solos on “Spring” and “Soli” and you feel the force that helps light up this recording as something special. The band work exceptionally well together throughout, with the wonderful “Austin” taking the listener on a journey of jazz wonder and ear-enlightening pleasure.

Wendel comments that all of the pieces on “What We Bring” are dedicated to the masters from the past, peers from the present and musicians of the future. Well I for one will be checking out more of Wendel’s music very soon, as he himself has to be considered as one of the guiding lights of the present contemporary jazz scene.

Mike Gates