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Album Review: Ben Wendel's 'Frame'

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

By

Ben Wendel Frame
Courtesy of Sunny Side Records
Saxophonist Ben Wendel has an extensive discography under his belt, yet his album Frame is only his second record, after 2009’s Simple Song, as a leader. Better known for his work with the fusion group Kneebody, Wendel has chosen to put out a modern, yet fairly straight ahead, jazz work. Fellow Kneebody members keyboardist Adam Benjamin and drummer Nate Wood join him, as well as bassist Ben Street and guitarist Nir Felder. Frame also features guest pianists Gerald Clayton and Tigran Hamasyan. With such company, the album is a veritable cornucopia of technical virtuosity.

That is not to imply that every track is merely on overwhelming flurry of chops and notes. On the contrary, Wendel's compositions and improvisations are largely tasteful and melodic. The melody of the opening track, “Chorale,” moves simply and slowly. The band maintains this ambling stepwise motif throughout the piece, providing a strong foundation for the soloists. Despite the slow moving melody, Nate Wood's constant fills give the track an overall sense of forward momentum. Nir Felder plays languidly, leaving space and marking his notes, while Wendel's solo, though modern, sounds strongly connected to players like Stan Getz.

A standout track on the album is Wendel's duet with Clayton on the classic Dizzy Gillespie composition, “Con Alma,” a tune that has been recorded countless times of the last 70 years, yet they manage to find a fresh interpretation. Clayton subtly reharmonizes the tune, implying “Giant Steps” changes. The two work in tandem, each alternating between accompanying and featured roles.

At this point, Tigran Hamasyan takes over the piano chair and the mood changes accordingly. On “Backbou,” Wendel switches to bassoon, changing the timbre of the track to something like chamber rock music. The rhythmic layering builds towards a rock-out climax as Hamasyan pounds away at the keys. The various independent, rhythmically charged lines, mesh like gears in a pocket watch.

“Jean and Renata” is a trio track with Ben Street and Nate Wood. There isn't really much of a composed melody, more of a loose motif over Street's ostinato bass line. It's an obvious nod to tunes like Wayne Shorter's “Indian Song” (on Etcetera, Blue Note, 1965) and Wendel shreds through it. However, unlike the aforementioned Wayne track, there isn't as much interaction as there could be, and it lacks the openness that he found with Clayton on “Con Alma.” It feels a bit like a missed opportunity.

Wendel closes the album with a beautiful, almost classical piece called “Julia.” Wood's simple steady pulse is incredibly effective, and a nice change of pace from all the chops laden drumming of the rest of the album. The piece builds from nearly nothing, and ends with a pop-like anthem that almost invites a sing-along with the listener.

Overall, Frame is an excellent record with many lovely moments and interesting compositions. Wendel is a versatile composer and improviser, who obviously checks out a lot of different music. However, in his effort to showcase himself and the various stylistic hats that he wears, he doesn't quite find the open freedom in most of the tracks that could really let his truly excellent band shine. That being said, I look forward to his next effort as a leader.

Release Date:

Februrary 28th, 2012 on Sunny Side Records

Personnel:

Ben Wendel - Saxophones, Bassoon, and Melodica Gerald Clayton - (Tracks 1,2,3) Piano Tigran Hamasyan - (Tracks 4,6,7) Piano Nir Felder - Guitar Adam Benjamin - (Tracks 1,4,6,7) Piano and (Tracks 8,9) Fender Rhodes Ben Street - Bass Nate Wood - Drums

Tracks:

  1. Chorale
  2. Clayland
  3. Con Alma
  4. Backbou
  5. Jean and Renata
  6. Blocks
  7. Frame
  8. Leaving
  9. Julia
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