Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
Modern musicians are faced with an interesting dilemma these days, as they struggle to be heard in a world of myriad entertainment options and attention-grabbing digital devices that often keep them from reaching their listeners. In 2015, saxophonist Ben Wendel found one simple way to cut through the clutter with a series of YouTube videos called The Seasons.
Released every month that year, the beautifully constructed clips captured Wendel performing his original compositions with duet partners ranging from fellow saxophonist Joshua Redman to guitarist Gilad Hekselman and vocalist Luciana Souza. Each piece was written with a particular partner in mind. The video with drummer Jeff Ballard, for example, highlights a work that is halting and jagged, while the duet with Souza flows along with a flowery bounce.
“I was really happy to see how it was received,” Wendel said, speaking on the phone from his Brooklyn home. “It was one of the only times that I did a project that was really art for art’s sake. I wanted to have the experience of playing those duets with different people and capturing them with video director [Alex Chaloff]. I think I really didn’t have any idea of where it would go.”
The Seasons has continued to evolve since then. In 2016, Wendel performed the suite of songs at The Jazz Gallery and then returned to the material earlier this year at the Village Vanguard. The latter run of performances allowed him to put together a quintet made up of the various artists who had played with him on the YouTube series, including Hekselman, drummer Eric Harland, bassist Matt Brewer and pianist Aaron Parks. Soon after, that ensemble went into the studio to record the more fleshed-out material for an album version of The Seasons, which was released this fall on Motéma.
The series racked up thousands of views, and was picked as one of the best albums of 2015 by then-New York Times critic Nate Chinen, even though it wasn’t available in physical form.
The Seasons material survived the transition from duet pieces to full band expressions with ease. “July” originally was written as a balmy two-hander with Wendel playing a wafting bassoon melody around which guitarist Julian Lage bobs and weaves. The studio version maintains its delicacy, but receives a lurching energy through Harland’s gamboling beats and the shimmer of Parks’ playing. Others take on a much splashier form, like “April,” which was filmed with Wendel and Harland laying into a minimalist New Orleans groove. With the full band, the roof-raising spirit of the original version comes to the fore, with all the players grinding toward a riotous conclusion.
For Wendel, revisiting this material and configuring it for five players instead of just two was a welcome challenge.
“One cool aspect of writing duets is that you have to write in a way where every part counts,” he said. “You have to create a whole universe with just two voices. What ended up being great about arranging these for a larger ensemble is that the core structure of these compositions was strong enough that it was a lot easier to transfer it to more voices. I think it would be much harder had I done it in reverse. Going in this direction, it felt quite natural.”
As for the members of the Seasons Group (as they’re being billed for a European tour), having all the videos also proved helpful to get a clearer sense of what kind of vibe and mood Wendel initially was trying to create, even if they took the music in a much different direction.
“Because he wrote those songs specifically for people and for the time of year they were released, that subconsciously influences things,” Hekselman said. “I play with Jeff Ballard quite a lot, and I had this image in my mind of what Jeff’s vibe is, so I tried to capture that when I play. It’s nice to actually have a person in mind when you play a song.”
This project also has inspired Wendel to continue experimenting with capturing performances for his YouTube channel. In April, he inaugurated a new series of clips called Standards With Friends that finds him performing versions of tunes from the jazz canon, like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “You And The Night And The Music,” with an entirely new set of partners. To date, Wendel has released a dozen videos featuring saxophonist Melissa Aldana, guitarist Charles Altura and his new trio, ACT!, with bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Nate Wood.
“Ninety-nine percent of the gigs that I do, it’s all original music,” Wendel said. “But we all have this past and are all connected to the history of this music we all love. I don’t know when that series is going to end, but I want to cover as much of the scene as I can cover, and with different generations playing familiar material that none of us play much anymore.” DB
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