At first glance, a duet between a piano and saxophone could be considered a challenging assignment for some jazz listeners. Stripped of a rhythm section to anchor the ear, artists who tackle such a formation reduce their sound to its essence while allowing ample space to roam, leaving nowhere to hide if one player steps out too far beyond the other's lead.
Fortunately -- but certainly not unexpectedly -- no such thing happened at the Blue Whale on Thursday night. Combining saxophonist Ben Wendel and pianist Dan Tepfer, the concert was a summit meeting of sorts between two steadily rising talents on the Sunnyside label.
Wendel may be the more known commodity in L.A., having co-founded the genre-hopping jazz-rock group Kneebody as well as a stint teaching at USC before leaving for a position at the New School of New York. But Tepfer has drawn considerable notice in recent years with his 2010 album "Five Pedals Deep" and frequent collaborations with saxophone great Lee Konitz, which included a lauded album of improvised duet recordings in 2009.
Opening with a gently twisted take on "Monk's Dream" byThelonious Monk, the duo circled the edges of the song's familiar, off-kilter refrain, never entirely embracing it until the finish as the two took turns following one another down a lightly sketched path as the two constructed a head-bobbing groove.
A roiling take on Tepfer's "Peal, Repeal" fairly justified the Brad Mehldau comparisons as the pianist punched out bright counterpoints over a steady rumble from his left hand. As Wendel's saxophone arced overhead, Tepfer boldly tore the melody into a new, darkened corner, inspiring Wendel to downshift into a low drone underneath his changes. Effortlessly coursing through a seemingly endless series of give-and-takes, the song seemed as if it could expand through the night as it continued to build.
A composer with a restless sonic ear, Wendel switched to bassoon for a churning run through “Simple Song,” which was balanced by an anthemic turn from Tepfer, and “Leaving” from Wendel’s recent album “Frame” missed the original’s dark, percussive drive but gained a new layer of melancholy with Wendel's sighing melodica anchoring the song’s center.
The duo later ventured into a few “tastes” from Tepfer’s profoundly ambitious “Goldberg Variations / Variations” recording from last year, which was co-produced by Wendel. Following the structure of the album, the duo took on a pair of Bach’s knotty originals and followed each piece with looser, improvisation-heavy takes.
After the intricate musical miniatures that at one point found Tepfer alternately crossing his hands over each other in a dizzying display of pace, the duo looked spent -- but joyfully so. “How many of those are there again?” Wendel playfully asked Tepfer as he wiped his horn. Upon hearing the answer Wendel replied, “Yeah, two is enough.”
Live: Ben Wendel at Barnsdall Gallery Theater
The jazz saxophonist premiered an as-yet untitled six-part suite.
For a guy who named his 2009 solo debut "Simple Song," Ben Wendel isn't a musician afraid of complicated situations. In a Tuesday night show at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, the young saxophonist stepped away from a set list that served him in rooms such as Café Metropol and the Mint and instead presented the L.A. premiere of an as-yet untitled six-part suite, the end result of earning a New Works Grant from Chamber Music America.
Given that his recent track record on the L.A. scene includes founding the genre-hopping funk-jazz group Kneebody and backing underground laptop adventurer Daedelus, Wendel's ambitious turn toward yet another genre shouldn't come as a surprise. But what was a pleasure to discover is how natural his transition sounded.
Looking like a KCRW-ready singer-songwriter in dark jeans and a snug-fitting jacket, Wendel introduced the 65-minute piece as initially inspired by French Baroque dance forms. And while such talk sounds about as far from jazz tradition as one can get, the end result was lush, evocative and deeply rooted in the genre.
Performing on saxophones, bassoon and the occasional melodica, Wendel was a democratic leader through the intricate and harmonically rich suite, offering plenty of room for his crack, six-piece ensemble to shine.
During a swirling second movement that bore the working title "When Was," mutton-chopped keyboardist Adam Benjamin dived deep into the piece's percolating melody on an effects-heavy Fender Rhodes. He took the composition into wide-open territory that flirted with the most restless tributaries of '70s fusion as well as the more experimental-minded excursions found in modern indie rock. It was a testament to Wendel's taut arrangement skills that the night never drifted into free-blowing cacophony.
The group seemed to split the difference between generations, with younger players like Benjamin and Thelonious Monk Competition winner Tigran Hamasyan on piano and rock-solid veterans like bassist Darek Oles and guitarist Larry Koonse. An empathetic restraint remained the dominant philosophy for each of the players.
Apart from a fleet-fingered rush through the fourth movement on soprano sax that left him momentarily breathless, much of Wendel's playing offered an understated and evocatively cyclical feel, saving its furthest-reaching explorations for the evening's close.
As if looking to close the night with some fireworks, Wendel's solo on tenor saxophone in the sixth movement swerved through a dramatic series of trills and runs that earned a few "oohs" from the crowd while still preserving the piece's intricate, syncopated backbone.
Working for a young, hoodie-wearing audience consistent with Wendel's current position as adjunct professor of jazz studies at USC, Wendel's elegant compositional shift showed a new aspect of an artist who already was coming into his own with his lovely recent album.
Though Tuesday's piece is still unrecorded, its ephemeral quality captured some of jazz's finest qualities -- it was fresh, ever-evolving and gone as soon as the last note was played. But hopefully not for long.
Ben Wendel — critically omitted from everyone’s top 10 lists (CD reviews)
I know my excuse.
I didn’t buy reedman Ben Wendel’s recording Simple Song (Sunnyside) until a few days ago — long after I’d posted my Top 10 list. Having heard the disc a few times, and having been bowled over, I’m surprised that none of the on-the-scene critics in New York, where Wendel is based, thought enough of Simple Song to vault the disc onto their Top 10 lists.
Wendel’s first disc under his own name — he’s on other CDs, most notably those by his multi-genre co-op band Kneebody — Is fantastic, with the Vancouver-born, Los Angeles-raised musician gleaming as an instrumentalist and composer. On tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, and even bassoon and melodica, he’s a striking and distinctive player bursting with ideas, extending the Coltrane – Brecker – McCaslin – Turner lineage. His writing can be intricate (much of the music on Simple Song is not simple), but it’s definitely ear-catching, with substantial songs building on, among other things, the harmonic material and arranging features of the Kurt Rosenwinkel/Mark Turner duo, Brad Mehldau, and pop. This tune, Trust Fall, is filled with some daring melodic roller coasters. fine solos and some appealing structural surprises.
Here, attesting to his bassoon prowess and composing and arranging chops, is his tune Maupin, surely dedicated to reedman Benny Maupin.
Not one to turn his back on the jazz canon either, Wendel also records John Coltrane’s Lonnie’s Lament (re-cast as an open, 12/8 Latin romp) and Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing (fashioned as a classical recital for Wendel’s overdubbed horns, with soprano saxophone the star). In case you doubted Wendel’s love of burning bop, here his charging his way — and I mean his way — through Wee.
Simple Song, which came out in April 2009, features Wendel with powerful company, many of whom are twentysomething West Coasters or Californians transplanted to New York. They include pianists Taylor Eigsti, Tigran Hamasyan and Adam Benjamin, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Nate Wood. All have the same contemporary spirit and headiness to make Wendel’s music just that much more vivid than other discs I’ve heard that aspire to be this good.
Simple Song has clearly hit me — better late than never — as a standout for this year, announcing the arriving of a voice in jazz to be reckoned with.
I bought Simple Song because a subsequent disc featuring Wendel, which came out this fall and which I received rather than bought, made almost as big an impression on me. I made it an honourable mention on my Top 10 list, and I’m surprised that it, like Simple Song, has not cracked any other Top 10 lists. It’s called ACT(Brooklyn Jazz Underground), and it’s a saxophone trio disc with a twist or two, featuring Wendel in a co-op band with fellow West Coast friends bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Wood.
ACT is predominantly tumultous and dark-hued, brashly syncopated and intense, although its ballad track, a cover of Elvis Costello’s Shamed Into Love, is spare and lovely, sounding almost like a Billy Strayhorn song at times.
Wendel’s opener, News, its followup, the title track composed by Raghavan, and especially a souped-up version of Sonny Rollins’ Pentup House are top-notch examples of finely balanced, nuanced, high-energy thrashing. Wendel’s capable of long, dizzying lines, sounding at times like a more slippery Branford Marsalis. Raghavan is hugely propulsive and Wood is a fine rough-and-tumble drummer. As they play with all the energy and focus they’re capable of, they’re also tremendously attunded to each other and to the overall shape of each song.
The twists on this saxophone trio disc arise when Wendel overdubs bassoon backgrounds on two tracks, the austere Oldworld, and the CD’s last track, What Was, a stripped down but layered song that also features Wendel’s overdubbed piano chords.
I’d recommend both Simple Song and ACT to jazz fans who want to hear the keen forward-leaning edge of jazz’s modern mainstream — and especially to my fellow critics who might have skipped over their considerable charms.
BEN WENDEL GROUP
Though best known as a member of the knockabout jazz-rock band Kneebody, the saxophonist and bassoonist Ben Wendel also has an airier side, as he proves on “Simple Song” (Sunnyside), his often contemplative debut. Celebrating its release here, Mr. Wendel leads an ensemble with the pianist Adam Benjamin, the guitarist Nir Felder, the bassist Ben Street and the drummer Nate Wood.