Ben Wendel, perhaps best known for his bold and forward-thinking group Kneebody, has been hard at work for the last two years on a project of ambitious scope. The Seasons is Wendel’s tribute to twelve musical collaborators and friends, including such heavy-hitters as Jeff Ballard, Julian Lage, and Mark Turner. The project unfolds in a series of twelve duets, released monthly as immersive videos over the course of 2015. Wendel’s facility as a composer, saxophonist, and bassoonist shines throughout the project’s 12 movements.
Wendel will be performing the compositions of the project, arranged for quintet, at The Jazz Gallery later this Friday and Saturday, January 22nd and 23rd. While Wendel wrote extensively about the project on his website, we spoke with him via phone to uncover more details of the project, starting with its earliest conceptions.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve written that you were inspired by Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons. In Tchaikovsky’s composition, each movement has a sort of programmatic element to it, to capture the ebb and flow of a year. What kind of overarching themes did you incorporate in your approach to this project?
Ben Wendel: The priorities were to write pieces that somehow honored each guest and that spoke to their musical spirit. The main priority was to write to what I heard in their specific musicianship and artistry. As I started to write and develop the pieces, there were certain moods that I felt in each piece. I’d begin to ask myself, What month does this feel like to me? For example, some people think of December and think of the holidays and of an upbeat spirit. For me, December, and wintertime in general, is a time for reflection at the end of the year. “December” is an example of where I deviated from Tchaikovsky’s vision. His interpretation of December is entitled “Noël” and has a holiday theme. It’s very cheerful. When I wrote the piece for Ambrose [Akinmusire], I was thinking first and foremost about Ambrose and the feeling and mood I get from his playing. I secondarily thought that his mood of reflection matched my vision of December.
TJG: So how did that sentiment of December as a month of reflection go forward to inform how you composed for and played with Ambrose? Did you talk about it beforehand?
BW: I’ve got a mini-blog on each piece on my website, and I wrote a bit about what I was thinking when I wrote the piece for him. By the time I did Ambrose’s piece, I had done all eleven other pieces, so I was starting to feel like I had a rhythm, in terms of writing a piece that fit the artistry of the guest and the sentiment of the month. “December” was also the only piece that was recorded in the same month it was released (December, 2015). In that sense, I had a chance to write this piece for Ambrose and think about how I wanted the ending of this series to feel. I was happy to see that that one struck an emotional chord with a lot of people. A lot of that has to do with Ambrose, he has this power and mood that translate through music.
TJG: Chronology is an important aspect of The Seasons; what’s the significance for you of having your duet with Taylor Eigsti represent “January”? How does it set the tone for the rest of the project?
BW: As I said, each piece was different in this respect. I thought of January as the beginning of the year. I thought of motion, of things starting anew. I was thinking about Taylor and the way he plays; there’s a part of how he plays that really speaks to my upbringing. His technique reminds me of a classical approach. So, I was considering all of these things while writing for him.
Another good example is the piece I wrote for Julian Lage. When I thought of Julian, before I even thought of anything technical that he does on guitar, I mostly thought of his personality. When I think of him, I think of sunlight. He has such a bright personality. So before I even wrote a note for Julian, I imagined that piece would probably be a summer month.
It’s not totally easy to get into hyper-specifics with each month. And I didn’t always stick with this thought process. For example, “April,” which I wrote about in my blog, has a little bit of an inside joke: It’s a loose contrafact of “I’ll Remember April.” Some other of the tunes had little hidden designs that correspond to the month. “September” with Jeff Ballard is based off of a tune called “Gazzelloni” from Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch. Again, I wrote more specifically about how we improvised the piece on the project’s blog.
TJG: To follow up on “January,” could you talk a little about your harmonic concept and the melodic twists and turns in this piece?
BW: It’s hard to say in words, but I’ll try. When I think of Taylor’s playing, I think of clean lines and clear harmonies. There’s a certain kind of crystal clarity in the way he plays and harmonically expresses himself. When I was thinking of writing for him, right away I thought of something that would have a slight classical lope to it, but that would also be harmonically clear in a certain sense. I even think I saw white keys in my head. I thought: C major [laughs]. In general, how I write is very much in the spirit of classical composers. I try to use the absolute minimal amount of melodic material, and try to stretch it in as many ways as possible throughout the course of the piece. So “January” has at most three ideas, maybe even just two ideas. There’s a figure that goes ‘da-Dah, da-Dah’ which can be found throughout the piece, in the bassline, melody, solos. And the other idea is just dotted quarter notes. I was looking for a certain simplicity. I like to experiment with a complex use of simple things.
TJG: So with regard to Matt Brewer’s “March,” you wrote on your blog that you were thinking of “the lonely mood of the Douglass Music venue and what might sound beautiful in that space.” What made that space lonesome, and how did you incorporate that into the music?
BW: The Douglass space is one of those classic Brooklyn spaces, one that probably has a long and sordid history, and you can kinda just feel it, you can see it in the walls and in the floor. You can feel the history. There’s a certain loneliness. And you bring up a good point: The third factor that influenced me while writing these pieces, after the artist and the month, was the actual space we’d be recording in. Sometimes I’d write the piece and try to find a perfect space, but other times I knew what the space was going to be, like the Douglass space. I imagined playing in that space, and tried to understand how that space spoke to me.
TJG: The Seasons has a huge diversity of spaces, from churches and studios to living rooms.
BW: That the plan from the start: I wanted each space to be different.
TJG: So with regard to the composition of “March,” how did the Douglass space influence your playing and your approach with Matt?
BW: I’d say it was more of a mood thing. Of course the mood of a space is different for everyone. With “March” itself, I was thinking a lot about Matt’s incredible technical abilities on the bass, and the fact that he would be able to navigate and sustain many ideas throughout the course of the piece. He does the ostinato, parts of the melody, and the root notes.
With a lot of the project, I by no means asked anyone to memorize the music. And this is such a testament to Matt’s musicianship: He showed up, he had looked over the piece, and there were even music stands at the venue. But he thought it would be nice if he didn’t have to read off a music stand. He basically finished memorizing the piece as they were setting up the cameras. We just kept playing though it, and twenty minutes later, he’d memorized the piece. In terms of playing with everyone, that was one of many inspiring learning moments, witnessing how all these musicians attack and approach music.
TJG: You play bassoon on “March.” The saxophone and bassoon have some similar constraints as wind instruments, in the sense that they’re both confined to finite breath and linear phrases. Aside from tone, what differentiates the two as performance and composition tools?
BW: The bassoon is literally an older instrument. It’s a medieval instrument. It immediately invokes a different feeling than the saxophone. It is by far, and I think few would argue, one of the most difficult woodwind instruments. It never got updated like the clarinet or the flute. The fingerings and embouchure are still very much ‘as they were.’ There’s so much I cannot do on bassoon, in terms of playing fast ideas. So, it forces me to slow down and phrase in a different way. Because I can’t play crazy fast and technical things, it makes me approach improvising and melody in a different way. It forces me to create space and be patient. I can’t play with the same kind of condensed information that I’d be able to do on the sax. I can’t move from one idea to the next at the same speed.
TJG: Regarding “April” with drummer Eric Harland, you wrote on the blog that you worked to split your instrument into bass and melodic roles, to handle playing with Eric. Were you aware of any ways in which Eric was expanding his role as well?
BW: Not really. On that one, I was so busy trying to just play the piece [laughs]. It was pretty hard, leaping around like that, trying to think of those two roles at the same time. So of course I heard everything Eric was doing, but I don’t know if he was consciously splitting roles. He had a really interesting setup. He had a normal bass drum, and then on the side he had a big bass drum that he’d hit every so often. In terms of things that would happen during that performance, like him picking up the tambourine, that was all spontaneous. Each take was a different interpretation, a different tempo. That just happened to be the one that we liked the most. Eric is completely non-judgmental, and would have been happy with any of the takes. I just really liked the one that made it to the project. I thought it had one of the more interesting developments.
In terms of guidance, I didn’t try to control anyone during the project. That was the fun of the project: I was doing it to honor the guests, so the last thing that was on my mind was telling them how to perform the music. A lot of time, people came in asking to try things and adjust things, and it was all fair game. So with Eric, I didn’t say a word.
TJG: You wrote that you took fourteen takes of “April.” I imagine that Eric’s arm would have gotten extremely tired of shaking that tambourine through all fourteen takes.
BW: [Laughs] Yeah, he didn’t do tambo on all of them.
TJG: So what has playing with Eric taught you about rhythm and flow?
BW: Well, Eric is, in my opinion, one of the best compers on the drums of anyone I know. That is to say, he has played so much, and is so good at the instrument, that he can ride that line where he is creating a comfortable space for you, and the time feels great, and he’s able to lean in and listen and create opportunities and push you along and inspire you without derailing, which is the gift of an extremely advanced drummer [laughs]. He really has that gift. You can depend on him and lean on him, and he’s listening to you while always keeping that balance.
I also mentioned this in the blog, but the only other time that I remember having that feeling, in such a strong way, was during the year that I got to play with Billy Higgins. Billy was such a different drummer than Eric. But he had that same feeling. When you play with them, you feel like you’re safe, and that you can’t do any wrong. That’s the gift of a great musician. Great ‘comping and supporting is a huge testament to their musicianship, perhaps more than anything else.
TJG: Speaking of musicianship, I interviewed Aaron Parks for this blog in August. He had fascinating things to say about his evolving relationship with the piano. What excites you about Aaron’s playing these days?
BW: Aaron is just so good [laughs]. He’s just one of those guys who transcends the instrument in a certain sense. For all musicians, when they start to achieve this next-level mastery, you get the sensation that the instrument is a vehicle for their own expression. You’re hearing the person more and more. So with Aaron, I mean, his sound, his touch, his feel, the way he plays eighth notes and phrases, the clarity of his ideas: It all just sounds like him. I don’t even think of the piano that much when I hear him play. I just hear the person.
TJG: Regarding “November,” you wrote that you heard Aaron’s music as a combination of “melancholy and hope.” After completing this year-long project, how would you describe your own sound?
BW: This project, from beginning to end, took two years. It was easily the most work I’ve put into anything. Easily the work of three to four albums, in terms of coordinating twelve artists, writing twelve pieces, finding twelve venues. And playing duo, which is just hard. It’s a challenging format. So, you know, I do feel different. I feel like a different musician from when I began. I basically put myself in a position where I was going to challenge myself as a saxophonist, composer, and artist, to live up to the idea of this project, and to hopefully live up to the amazing caliber of the guests.
I’m thinking of an Eric Harland quote. On his twitter account, he wrote once that “If you’re comfortable when you’re practicing, you’re doing something wrong.” What I’ve felt over the last two years of doing this project was extreme growth. For my brain, my body, my hands. I feel like the challenge of creating and completing this project helped push me to a new place.
TJG: In citing Eric Harland, are you saying that with that growth, there was a certain level of discomfort?
BW: It’s hard to find the right word. I just love music. I love working hard. I love getting better, and trying to figure out how to do this crazy thing. And I love the fact that you can never master it [laughs]. So yes, there was discomfort along the way, but not in a bad way. More in the way when you wonder, Am I going to be able to pull this off? Can I write something that I don’t know if I’ll be able to play? For example, the piece I wrote for Luciana. I said, I’m going to circular breathe this crazy stuff on the saxophone. Will I be able to do it? When it comes time to record this piece, and we have extremely limited time to do it, will I be able to do it? There was the discomfort of the unknown. But the more I read about other artist’s process, that’s what you want. If you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably on the right track. And when the pieces were done, there was the feeling of elation.
TJG: That feeling certainly comes through in the project’s final videos. How did you start working with Alex Chaloff?
BW: I met Alex a few years ago in LA. I don’t remember how he approached me, but he said “I’m a video/sound guy. Can I video Kneebody?” We were playing at The Blue Whale in LA, and I said sure. He came in with one camera and a little 8-channel rack, and ended up creating something so musical and vibey. We began working together more, and he did more stuff for Kneebody. He has that great gift, where his personality is there in all of the pieces, and he enhances the experience of listening to the music without getting in the way. The music stands on its own in audio form, but if you watch it, you feel like you’re experiencing the music more. And that’s a testament to Alex.
So anyway, I’ve known Alex for years. When I came up with the idea for The Seasons, I approached him, and asked if he’d like to do all twelve videos. I wanted it to be a unified thing. He loved the idea. And just like with each musical guest, I didn’t interfere with his filming. I’m a huge believer in working with people who know how to do what they do, and letting them do what they do. He has a beautiful eye and he did a great job.
TJG: To bring it back to The Jazz Gallery, that video with Aaron parks in particular is so bright, open, and clean.
BW: It was great to be in that space during The Gallery’s beginnings. And that was luck too. The light that was coming in during the recording was beautiful at that moment in time, very natural and beautiful. The Seasons had its genesis in a residency at The Jazz Gallery. I was writing for three different projects at the time, two of which are now done. I wrote some of The Seasons there, I wrote music for my next album there, and I also wrote music for a project with an electronic musician.
TJG: Is there anything you’d like to add about the upcoming show?
BW: Yes, actually, something very important! The show isn’t going to be duets: It’s going to be this quintet playing the music of The Seasons. We’re not doing duos. These will be full-ensemble versions of the duet pieces. We’ll be playing all twelve months over the course of two sets.
TJG: Fantastic. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us!
BW: Of course. Thank you.
Saxophonist Ben Wendel presents The Seasons: Live at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, January 22nd, and Saturday, January 23rd, 2016. Mr. Wendell will be joined by Taylor Eigsti and Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Brewer on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members), $27 for reserved cabaret seating ($17 for members), for each set. Purchase tickets here.