A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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“Do you mind if I cook while we talk?” said Ben Wendel over the phone late Friday afternoon. Over the past two months, Ben, as part of this year’s 2013-14 Residency Commissions series at The Jazz Gallery, has been composing new music for various projects, including his new quartet. The band features pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Henry Cole, and will perform his new music next Friday and Saturday, February 14th and 15th. We spoke with Ben in December at the beginning of his residency and caught up with him on Friday to learn more about what he has in store for us during his performances next weekend.

The Jazz Gallery: You mentioned in December that you hoped to write some duets. Did you end up sticking to that plan?

Ben Wendel: Yeah! So far I’ve written seven of twelve now, and I’m going to be trying them out over the next month. I’ve written a duet for me and Aaron Parks, for me and Julian Lage, for me and Taylor Eigsti, for me and Mark Turner, and they’re all really different. The springboard for writing these came from things about each player that I really enjoy or thought are indicative of their musical personality.

TJG: Did you encounter any unexpected challenges in writing these? 

BW: I’d say that the biggest challenge is just finding time to try these pieces out with the musicians! The nice thing is that they’re totally open to it, so it’s just a matter of coordinating times; it’s starting to come together. And you know, writing is…it’s just hard work. It’s really rewarding, but it’s a really slow, intense, laborious experience. You spend six to seven hours a day slowly putting a piece together, and there’s so much stopping and starting and going down paths that lead to nowhere, and you have to start over.

I’m over halfway through with the duets and I’ve written three new pieces for the new solo album with the quartet. I was also able to write a couple of pieces for this collaborative album I’m doing with this electronic artist called Daedelus, which has been in the works. I’ve been able to attack a few pieces there, including something I just finished that I’m really proud of; I’ve done a very, very strange arrangement of a famous tune by that band called The Cars—one of their most popular hits called “Drive.” Most people know it through some of the lyrics that are in the song itself, like “Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?” There’s a hilarious video—you’ve got to see it.

What I’ve been doing is writing and mostly performing the music while he’s doing what he does, which is being a producer in the ears and bringing his beautiful, vast soundscape aesthetic to the music. I’ve been asking different friends of mine who are not really in the jazz world to be guest vocalists and musicians on the album. Over Christmas, I had this singer-songwriter, Julia Holter, come in, and she sang on a song—she wrote lyrics for music I wrote—and I’m going to have other folks like Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi, who are both in a band called Knower, and probably Thundercat and other cool people. That’s a complete side-project that’s been in development, so I’ve been able to work on and write for all three of these things during this Residency.

TJG: How important is it to you to collaborate outside of the world of jazz?

BW: It’s really important! You can’t really answer these questions without everything sounding like a cliché, but there’s no way around it: the fact of the matter is that I think musicians today have a hard time self-identifying themselves as one particular thing. Not everybody—some people really do commit and say, “I’m a jazz musician, that’s what I do.” I think that’s great, *laughter* but it just turns out that that’s not who I am personally.

If jazz is supposed to be this art that’s a search for self-expression, then all I’m doing is expressing what my influences are and what the things are that I’m passionate about. If that’s the spirit of jazz, then I’m a jazz musician. But, as it turns out, when I express those influences they lead to many places that are outside of this world that we loosely put under “the j-word.” So at the end of the day, I self-identify as a musician. That’s it. No genre; I self-identify as a musician.

It’s interesting because when you read biographies or go a little deeper under the surface of the great artists in any genre, you discover that, in fact, they were listening to and checking out and admiring all kinds of music and art that had nothing to do with their field. And I feel like that’s not a coincidence. I think that’s what brings depth to a lot of artists that we love: there’s this whole unspoken world of study and appreciation going on that would surprise many people.

TJG: You’ll be performing with your new quartet next weekend. Can you say a few words about the music you’ve written for this band?

BW: It’s a pretty wide range of stuff. There are a few strange arrangements that I’ve done—I shouldn’t use the word “strange”—just unexpected arrangements. I’ve done an interesting arrangement of a classic ballad called “Never Let Me Go” and turned it into a very ominous song that’s in 9/8 and in a completely different, non-ballad context, and I’ve reharmonized it.

It’s funny—I remember doing an interview with Jason Crane of The Jazz Session, and I remember he said, “You’re known as a guy who’ll write these songs that have these crazy solis in them,” and I said, “What? A lot of people do that!” So anyway, I’d written at least one tune like that on every album that features some crazy, unison piano-sax thing, and I’ve written another one, but that’s different from the others that I’ve written and is challenging in a different way.

TJG: Which of your compositions do you identify as the “crazy soli” compositions?

BW: There’s a song called “Trust Fall,” a song called “Frame,” and a song called “Breath” where at some point, usually in the second half, there’s some crazy unison lines.

TJG: You’re a very balanced composer and improviser. Do you make a distinction between your improvising and your composing? Or, put another way, what’s the relationship between composition and improvisation for you? 

BW: You know, I just read this great quote by Aaron Copland that sums up how I think about composing. He basically said, “Composing is like improvising slowed down.” That basically answers it for me; in improvisation and composition it’s all the same person and all the same voice, but the distinction is that with composition, you get to slow down and distill your ideas into a really cohesive, compositional expression.

To me, they’re really tied together: I learn a lot about how I hear harmony or how I hear lines through composing. Somehow, they’re linked, and it’s circular because it’s hard to hear what you sound like; I know what I’m thinking but I don’t know how it sounds until I get feedback from other people and they say, “I think you’re playing this, or this.” Someone once pointed out how, for example, I play very simple diatonic ideas but in really disparate keys and move them around in ways that makes it sound complex, even though the initial idea is really simple. When that person said that, I said, “Oh, yeah. That’s how I compose!” I really like that sound of really simple, beautiful melodies with harmonic and rhythmic things happening that make it sound much more complex.

TJG: In your mind, is there a hierarchical relationship between improvising and composing?

BW: Not really. I’ve always felt like I’ve been trying to catch up—I feel like I would like my improvising to catch up to my composing. I’m writing things sometimes that I’m not sure that I’ll be 100% able to execute, things that are harder than I can play.

TJG: What have you been checking out lately? 

BW: With the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, everyone should see Capote, which he won the Oscar for. It’s one of the most perfect films I’ve ever seen, and he’s just so incredible. I remember that after I saw that, I couldn’t stop thinking about that performance for weeks. There’s also an artist that a friend introduced me to who I think is totally awesome: Laura Mvula. I think she’s fabulous.

I’ve also finally been getting into cooking and I’ve really been enjoying making various Italian dishes. There’s one dish that I’ve been working on a lot recently. A lot of chefs say if you want to get good at cooking, you should keep making the same dish over and over again, and refine it and experiment with it. I think it’s so interesting how much that sounds like what someone would say in music, but so there’s one dish that’s definitely not that healthy *laughter* but I love it so much. It’s called carbonara, and it’s made with bacon and eggs and cream and Parmesan and pasta; the only thing I do to make it remotely healthy is to use quinoa pasta, which is gluten free. It’s been really fun to try different restaurants and ask the chefs about their techniques.

TJG: Next Friday is Valentine’s Day and the weekend is Presidents’ Day Weekend. Just out of curiosity, will these holidays have any bearing on the music we’ll be hearing at the Gallery?

BW: Ha! You know, I didn’t even realize that until it was too late. I don’t think so, although “Never Let Me Go” is this beautiful love ballad, but my arrangement is quite ominous so I don’t know…Actually, you know what, the answer is “No.” There’s nothing specifically romantically planned for a holiday that was created by Hallmark.

The Ben Wendel Quartet performs at The Jazz Gallery as part of the 2013-14 Residency Commissions Series on Friday and Saturday, February 14th and 15th, 2014. The band features Ben Wendel on saxophone, Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass, and Henry Cole on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here