Ben Wendel’s Big Love of Community

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“I love working with fully developed artists, getting into their world and learning from them,” says Ben Wendel.

(Photo: Anouk van Kalmthout)

For many musicians who found themselves under a veritable house arrest during the COVID lockdown of 2020–’21, the pandemic became a strange mother and motivator of invention. Deprived of the usual forums of live gigging and musician interactions, artists delved into creative ventures in home studios, through remote tracking and other resourceful workarounds.

One dramatic example of a pandemic-driven jazz project is the new album All One from Ben Wendel. The Vancouver-born, Los Angeles-raised saxophonist and reed player boasts a resume includes his genre-stretching band Kneebody and work with Gerald Clayton, Ignacio Berroa, Linda May Han Oh, Prince and Snoop Dog.

For his self-motivated and labor-intensive new album, Wendel created elaborate one-man arrangements, sometimes with this many as 30 multitracked layers of horns. On top of these sonic tapestries, he added his own soloist voice, along with a starry roster of flown-in guests. Each of the six tunes features a special guest, including guitarist Bill Frisell, vocalists Cécile McLorin Salvant and José James, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, flutist Elena Pinderhughes and pianist Tigran Hamasyan.

Out of creative urgency and a sense of artistic mission, the resulting All One is a prime case of a highly technology-enabled project that also breathes and feels organic.

And it all started with pandemic deprivation. Wendel points out that “essentially, the pandemic made me realize that I get a lot of emotional and spiritual medicine from playing live, from being creative and from being able to collaborate and commune with other musicians. So when that was taken away, it was really a shock to the system. Working on All One, even though it was a lot of remote collaboration, it really was medicine. It was like a lifeline during that time to be able to work toward a goal and do something so ambitious.”

Specifically, the impetus to launch what became All One was an experimental process after discussing collaborative possibilities with trumpeter Randy Brecker. Wendel offered to work up a modest wind ensemble for Brecker to play over, blending bassoon and saxophone tracks. “It really came together beautifully,” he recalls. “That unlocked the door, and I realized, ‘Oh, I think there’s a concept here that I could really explore more deeply.’”

Asked if he had any role models for the new project, Wendel denied any particular existing paradigms, adding that “this is maybe the first time a project like this has been done. I don’t know that any album has had this much layering. Some of these tracks have over 30 voices that are layered (as with the McLorin Salvant-featured ‘I Loves You Porgy’). But to me, the real magic trick is that I’ve been able to play tracks for fellow musicians, and if I don’t tell them the technique of how this was put together, they just immediately assumed that it was a live ensemble.”

Each of the hand-picked musicians enlisted for the project has special meaning for the leader. Wendel’s connection with Pinderhughes, featured in a boldly interactive mode with the leader on the tune “Speak Joy,” began when he witnessed her gifts at a CD release party for James Francies. Wendel recalls, “She sat in for one song and basically stole the show — just an absolute phenomenon. We talked afterwards and she said that her and her brother Samora were big fans, that they actually were big fans of The Seasons album (Wendel’s 2018 release). And I said at the time, ‘You know, I would love to work with you at some point.’”

One of the most affecting tunes on the new album is his collaboration with Frisell, to the revamped re-arranged tune of Frisell’s thoughtful composition “Throughout.” Wendel stressed his admiration for “Bill’s whole sound concept, his use of effects pedals, his compositional style, his vulnerability — he is the ultimate genius-level musician. He has that thing, the same thing that I often hear in Wayne Shorter. It’s an incredible dichotomy of a childlike approach and sound, yet with so much depth and mastery behind it. Everything from the way I play — from my vibrato to my use of effects pedals to how I compose — is greatly influenced by Bill. And it was such an honor to work with him.”

Looking at the project as a whole, almost in suite-like terms, Wendel comments, “I wanted the album to sound unified compositionally and sonically, but also to feel like a journey. It has a beginning, middle and end. For example, the actual chord that the first track ends with is the same chord which ends the final track, I did little things like that from track to track to connect the compositions, to connect the album to give it a subtle kind of construction that you might not even know consciously was happening.”

While All One is a unique entry in Wendel’s discography of six albums under his name, there are detectable precedents to his emphasis on collaboration in his recent past, as on The Seasons, with guests including guitarist Julian Lage and saxophonist Joshua Redman. Looking back, Wendel admits that “I have enough of a discography now where I can look back and start to see some patterns that maybe I wasn’t even aware of. And it’s become really clear to me between The Seasons, between my online YouTube series called Standards with Friends and then this album that collaboration in general is hugely important to me — a creative springboard. I love working with fully developed artists, getting into their world and learning from them, in every sense of the word. That’s a huge part of why I’m a musician, that artist’s path of growth through collaboration.”

Given Wendel’s diversity of musical directions taken over his career, it’s obvious that he sees a mission to stretch boundaries. But he is quick to clarify, “I’m not on any crusade, and I’m not consciously trying to be eclectic. I truly am doing my best to just authentically be myself. My feeling about and my love of this music is that it’s a celebration of individuality. It encourages you to find your truest self. And at the same time, it also encourages you to work within a community.” DB



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