REVIEW: Ben Wendel Group at Ronnie Scott’s

L-R: Shai Maestro, Harish Raghavan, Ben Wendel, Nate Wood
Photo credit and © Steven Cropper of www.transientlife.uk

Ben Wendel Group
(Ronnie Scott’s, 28th February 2017. Review by Charlie Anderson)

Canadian-American saxophonist Ben Wendel brought together in one ensemble musicians that had each performed at Ronnie’s before but in different groups. With fellow Kneebody member Nate Wood on drums this was set to be an evening of groove-based jazz.

Those familiar with Ben Wendel’s music might have expected an evening solely of originals, maybe even with some bassoon-playing thrown in, but instead he performed solely on tenor saxophone and performed the Michel Legrand tune What Are You Doing For the Rest of Your Life, inspired by Peggy Lee’s 1970 television version.

The Kneebody tune Still Play and the original Unforeseeable were intelligently played with dazzling technical ability, but the highlight of the evening was Wendel’s latest composition, Lou. With a solid reggae-inspired groove, it proved the perfect vehicle for interaction between pianist Shai Maestro and Wendel. In fact, Maestro stood out, not as a mere replacement or duplicate for Gerald Clayton (or Taylor Eigsti) but as a genuine voice, clearly into what he was playing, listening carefully to each player and combining thoughtful accompanying with insightful and fluent solos.

If there was one aspect that was overly done, it was Wendel starting almost every tune with solo saxophone, playing a repeated Steve Reich-like pattern showing off his command of circular breathing and other extended techniques.

The rock tune, Doubt, composed by indie rock duo Wye Oak, proved to be a successful, moody ballad with intelligent and sensitive soloing from Wendel and Maestro.

Wendel often sounds like he is on a journey of exploration rather than having arrived at a destination and this searching nature in his playing is part of his charm. Whilst Wendel’s playing shows little connection to the African-American tradition, with the blues being notably absent, his playing sounds closer to the classical tradition, with a mastery of the technical aspects of the saxophone. And although his playing is not without emotional resonance it is highly cerebral and sometimes overly technical. Those who have listened to Wendel’s Seasons suite from 2015, which drew inspiration from Tchaikovsky and featured collaborations with different musicians, will know that this is simply Wendel’s style of playing, and at least he is being himself without any pretence. It was also good to see some of the pieces from that suite re-purposed as Spring and Fall, which both appear on his latest album What We Bring (Motéma).


Harish Raghavan and Ben Wendel
Photo credit and © Steven Cropper of www.transientlife.uk

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