By: Steven Miller, Sound in Review
Ben Wolfe is a composer and bassist currently on the teaching faculty at The Juilliard School Jazz Division. Wolfe is releasing a ten-track album, Fatherhood, which pays tribute to the bassist’s father, Dan Wolfe, a former violinist who spent a season with the San Antonio Symphony, who passed away in 2018. Besides paying tribute to his father, Fatherhood is nine originals and a standard with a theme on what it means for Wolfe to be a father to his own son, Milo. “I made this record in ways I knew my father would have encouraged” – that meant choosing the best studio, the best musicians, self-funding the entire project, and making wise decisions throughout. Wolfe is joined by both familiar collaborators and young standouts: Orrin Evans, Luis Perdomo, Joel Ross, Donald Edwards, Immanuel Wilkins, Ruben Fox, JD Allen, Giveton Gelin, Steve Davis, Jesse Mills, Georgy Valtchev, Kenji Bunch, and Wolfram Koessel.
“Blind Seven” is the first sounds of the album, Wolfe’s buoyant bass lines fill the space as vibraphonist Joel Ross and drummer Donald Edwards soon join. Ross’ improvisation is melodic and filled with youthful energy, he is only in his twenties. The swing feel is deep and feels great. Immanuel Wilkins takes over the soloing on alto saxophone. As Ross and Wilkins trade choruses, the string quartet is introduced with rich background figures. At the mid-way point, the be-bop inspired melody is finally played. “Blind Seven,” (a reference to the card game “spades,”) is a regular part of the Wolfe songbook and was first recorded in 1996. At the conclusion of the melody, a new theme is introduced by the string quartet. The eleven-note motive contrapuntally grows and finally returns to the up-tempo swing feel. Wolfe demonstrates his creative compositional skills on this one!
The standout track for me was the “Opener,” another Wolfe original. There are no strings on this track, instead Wolfe chooses to present the tune as an ensemble consisting of Wolfe, Edwards, Grammy-nominated pianist/composer Orrin Evans and a front line consisting of tenor saxophonist JD Allen and nineteen-year-old trumpeter Giveton Gelin. The beauty of the “Opener” is the rhythm section, these guys swing! Gelin’s solo is impressive as he swings with relaxed clarity. Both Allen and especially Evans, sound wonderful here, delightful lines set to a swing feel that elevates the playing to another level. This track focuses on the power of a great rhythm section laying down a beautiful feel for the soloist to explore with their harmonic and melodic languages.
Fatherhood is an outstanding collection of tunes performed by a revolving cast of excellent jazz musicians. Wolfe displays a wide range of compositional skills, from twelve tone compositions to romantic 1950’s cinematic colors. The instrumentation is varied and always presenting the listener new sounds to savor. The biggest thing is the theme maybe fatherhood, but what really struck me was the real father of great jazz is time feel, and Fatherhood is deep with that feeling.