Saxophonist, bassoonist, and composer Ben Wendel has been a familiar face at The Jazz Gallery for some time now. It’s fitting, then, that he’ll be inaugurating this year’s new season of Residency Commissions, which will be focusing on the music of contemporary reed players (and in the case of Ben, both single and double reeds). In addition to working on his newest compositional projects at The Jazz Gallery, Ben will be performing on our stage with pianist and polymath Dan Tepfer tomorrow and Saturday. We spoke with Ben by phone to ask him how his Residency, which began two weeks ago and will continue into February, has been going thus far and what fans and listeners will have to look forward to in the coming year.
The Jazz Gallery: Are there particular goals or musical ideas you want to achieve during your residency?
Ben Wendel: My goal is to write a few things: I’m going to write, hopefully, a series of twelve duos that will be with me and various other instrumentalists—lots of different instrumentalists like saxophone with drums, saxophone and guitar, saxophone and piano, maybe even bassoon and guitar or bass. It’s kind of loosely inspired by a series of piano pieces that Tchaikovsky wrote; he did a series of twelve piano pieces, one for each month, and I fell in love with those pieces last year and decided I’d try and write a piece for each month next year. The different people who are going to play with me are close friends and/or musicians that I’m very fond of and respect a lot, and a lot of the time the pieces will be written with their aesthetic in mind.
I’ll be recording my next solo album in the spring so I’m going to be writing material for that too. Those are completely separate projects and just that alone—twelve pieces and roughly something like a third of an album’s worth of music that still needs to be written—is plenty to try to handle in a month’s time.
TJG: Do you have a particular approach in mind for writing compositions for each month?
BW: I’m going to try to cater the pieces to what I would deem the mood of each month, so I am going to try to do that because he does do that in those pieces. So far, because I’m on a tight timeline, I’m really beginning with the first half of next year. Right now, I have nearly complete or complete pieces for the first few months—January, February, and March—January is going to have kind of a somber mood.
TJG: It’s sort of a dead month.
BW: Yeah. March or April is going to be a little more sprightly, so I’m just trying my best to think in those terms.
TJG: Have you composed programmatic or extramusically-inspired music like this before?
BW: Yeah—I received two Chamber Music America grants, and the first one that I won was very loosely inspired by the French Baroque dances, like the gavotte and pavane, so I wrote a suite based on those on what would be considered a Baroque dance suite, which has five or six movements. Outside of that, not really. Most of the time when I write, I just write, you know.
What’s kind of interesting about those piano pieces is that it’s part of, as far as I know, a subscription series: there were people who subscribed to a musical publication and they got one song each month. I’m actually looking at it right here—it was in St. Petersburg’s music magazine the Nouvellist, one for each month of the year. He promised new piece each month through 1876, so my plan is—I’m a little frightened to put this in writing, but it might really make me do it—my version is that I’m going to release a video version of each of these duets, once per month, on my YouTube page. The challenge will be coordinating the various musicians that I want to do this and whether they’ll be actually to do this in each month, but that’s the idea.
TJG: Is there anything in particular about the serialized format that appeals to you?
BW: In general, I do enjoy collections of works where you get to see someone’s vision over a period of time or through a certain lens, and, of course, there’s a lot of ways to do that, which is why you’ve got Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons or Tchaikovsky’s. It’s a cool springboard into composing.
I actually grew up initially as a classical musician so composers like Tchaikovsky have always resonated with me, and I like the idea of working on twelve pieces by twelve impressions of each month and the mood it brings.
TJG: Moving to the music you’re writing for the new record, how will this new music be an extension or departure of what came before in Frame, your most recent record as a leader?
BW: My first two albums had a very heavy composer element to them: there’s just a lot of writing going on and that’ll always be part of my identity. I tend not to write pieces that are light on material—maybe that’ll change years from now—but on this one, I kind of wanted to do something that’d be more like a playing album. Of course, I’m playing on all my albums, but I toured with a quartet in the fall with Gerald Clayton, Joe Sanders and Henry Cole, and as I become more confident as a soloist and a saxophonist, I wanted to write material that’s more of a vehicle for what I can do from an improvisational standpoint. There’ll be plenty of writing and composition going on, but the idea with the new album is to just make something that’s actually, I don’t know, not heavy with a lot of ideas, but really just a group. That combination of musicians is really great and very dynamic, so I’m just writing music for that group with the idea of touring with that group.
TJG: You work in a very diverse range of contexts and projects. Do you find yourself having to compartmentalize yourself musically between bands?
BW: I mostly write to the players that I’m playing with, so I don’t have to compartmentalize too much, thankfully; it just happens naturally, like this duo thing with Dan. All I have to do is start playing with him and start imagining pieces that I’d write for that which just naturally wouldn’t be conducive to another project like Kneebody. That being said, I would say that every so often, there are pieces that I write for one setting that I realize could be recontextualized and that would set very naturally.
I’ve done that twice with Kneebody: on my first record, I had a song called “No Thank You Mr. West,” and in that setting it was a very acoustic, chamber-type piece; I just knew that I could bring that to Kneebody and give it a completely different view, but that’d it’d fit with our repertoire. I did the same with “Still Play” [with Kneebody and on Small Constructions with Dan Tepfer], so I may even record that on the new quartet record because this band sounds so different.
TJG: How might you contrast quartet writing to other projects like Kneebody?
BW: You know, I guess for my solo albums, I’m generally just thinking I’m in more of an acoustic chamber state of mind, but there’s not really any—I mean, “Blocks” [from Frame] is more static and minimalist, but for me, it’s less about that and more about the size of the ensemble, the layering possible. For example, on that album it’s a larger type of ensemble with a Rhodes player, a piano player, and a guitar player, so there are so many harmonic instruments. I was interested in finding ways to orchestrate them and play together in ways so that they all have their own space that makes the overall sound larger and more orchestral, which was more where my head was at. But then with the quartet, like this album where it’ll be the first time where it’s quartet, I’m not going to have a bunch of guests. I think it’s going to be more about the personalities of the musicians, getting the certain sound aesthetic to the album, and maybe more of an emphasis even just on melody in a different way, but I’m not sure—I’m still kind of figuring it out.
Check back in late January, when we’ll catch up with Ben to see how his Residency went and where his work has taken him.