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Ben Wendel

Picotte Recital Hall
Massry Center for the Arts
College of Saint Rose
Albany, NY
October 2, 2009

by J Hunter

The crowd was light by the time Ben Wendel had convened his sextet onstage at the Picotte Recital Hall, giving this the feel of a private viewing. Indeed, the LA- based reedman said they were giving a “preview” of what they were going to play at Justins later that evening; that show would be two sets, while this would be only 45 minutes or so. Hey, grab your gifts when they fall out of the sky – particularly when Wendel was playing with bassist Ben Street and keyboardist Adam Benjamin, two of the best at their respective instruments. I couldn’t make the Justins show, but there was no way I was going to pass up seeing Wendel play for the third time in three weeks.

Wendel began with “Rhythm Changes”, a perfect choice to warm up both the band and the audience. Wendel worked through a soft opening figure as drummer Nate Wood set up the piece’s foundation and Street fell in behind to make it a trio. Wendel’s touch was as deft as they come, flying through figures but not blowing, his depth-of-content more than making up for any “lack” of power. Street plays one of the phattest basses you will ever hear, resonant as hell with a profound sense of narrative and counterpoint. Given that Benjamin and guitarist Nir Felder were playing electric, you’d normally worry about an acoustic bass being drowned out. With Street’s overwhelming tone, that was not going to happen. During the closing number, Street rode a four-note figure that made as big an impression as Wood’s wild-eyed percussion.

As with Joe Lovano, playing is a physical act for Wendel: He’ll literally bend lower and lower to dig for that one note or figure he’s looking for, and he’ll find it every single time. I’d suggest someone get him a wireless mic for Christmas, so he can move around the stage like Lovano did at Albany Riverfront. However, I believe we could have heard him if he’d walked out of the hall and played out in the parking lot – that’s the power and passion Wendel has when he’s turned up to 11. He gave that to Ignacio Berroa’s music at Lake George two weeks before, and to Otmaro Ruiz at APFJ the previous Friday; now he was doing it with his own band, and it was purely glorious to behold.

As much as I ate up everything Benjamin did on Fender Rhodes, he wasn’t the only keyboardist onstage. Armenian-born pianist Tygran Hamasyan – a leader in his own right – added off-kilter combinations to “Rhythm” that dovetailed with the piece’s building energy. His solos and support work were right on point throughout the set, but his best moment came on the closing number, when he added exclamation point after exclamation point as Wendel played into the stratosphere while Felder spread electric sizzle on top of it all.

The bulk of the set featured excerpts from a Chamber Music America commission Wendel was “tweaking.” He “thinks” he’s going to call it “The ‘6’ Suite” because there are so many ways the number 6 works into the music. Most of the pieces were untitled, although that was the only content that could be considered “missing.” Every piece had serious density, with intricate time changes and energy fluctuations that rose and fell like the Pacific surf. At one point, Wendel sat on a chair and favored us with something I’d never even thought of, let alone seen – jazz bassoon. The sound was unlike anything else I’ve heard in jazz, including the bass clarinet work of Don Byron and Chris Potter.

While not specifically “trance music”, the CMA pieces transport you somewhere else, borne on the wings of Wendel’s cascading saxophone. They made me want to hear the entire suite, and I sent one more mental thank-you note to Chamber Music America, jazz’ best BFF. This was a great opportunity to watch a terrific group work the kinks out before they took it to the gig. I only had one other question: How did they fit that band on Justins’ stage?

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.