Release date: April 14, 2023
Label: Edition Records
All One is the latest masterwork from saxophonist Ben Wendel. The boundless Wendel airs his instrumental variety on All One, heard here on tenor and soprano saxophone, bassoon, EFX and hand percussion. He braves six imaginative, cultivated arrangements alongside the finest crew of collaborators, including vocalists Cécile McLorin Salvant and José James, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Tigran Hamasyan and flutist Elena Pinderhughes.
The roots of All One can be traced to Wendel’s teenage years as a band geek. There were scores for orchestra around the house (at the time his mom, Dale Franzen, was a lyric soprano with the Los Angeles Opera); despite having no theory training, he attempted to write woodwind quintet arrangements of the pieces he loved, like Holst’s symphonic cycle “The Planets”. You know, for fun. “I’d gather up my friends and we’d try to play these great pieces,” Wendel recalls. “Why in God’s name I was interested in that, I don’t know. I was maybe 14 – I had zero harmonic knowledge. I’d look at the score and listen to the music and just guess. But I just loved the sounds you can get with a group of woodwinds or brass.”
GRAMMY® nominated Wendel is well versed in the collaborative dynamic as an artist, composer and producer. His acclaimed 2018 The Seasons began as a series of monthly duets with artists like Julian Lage and Joshua Redman, which were shared via YouTube before the album was made. He’s co-written songs with artists like Julia Holter, Becca Stevens, Gretchen Parlato and has been involved in sustained – and terrifically inventive – group exploration with Kneebody. The leaderless group, which first recorded in 2005, was at the leading edge of what came to be called post-jazz – its volatile, high-intensity approach connected the rhythmic languages of electronica and indie rock rhythms with wild, highly technical and frequently frenetic group interaction.
All One was a different beast. Wendel recognized that it couldn’t revolve entirely around improvisation. Working remotely, mid-pandemic, he’d need to establish some structural frameworks, the outline of the sculpture, before anything else could happen. Still in the thrall of large ensemble winds and still playing his first instrument, the bassoon, he began to hatch a recording project involving a woodwind choir backing singers or instrumentalists. It was still unrealistic to plan a conventional session with a large group of musicians in a studio. Next best option: A DIY orchestra, the Wendel ensemble. He began to sketch arrangement ideas for a multi tracked chorale of tenor saxophones and bassoons, with him playing all the parts. At the least, he reasoned, he’d have fun with it as an experiment.
Once the material was selected, Wendel began developing the arrangements. Though he used software programs, he avoided MIDI entirely; when his woodwinds suggest the sound of a low-brass choir, that’s not some fancy plug-in, that’s him. He thought about how each piece should unfold and sought unconventional ways to create dynamics and tension. He explored using close-knit chords by multitracking several bassoons; here, his exacting sense of intonation, honed at the Eastman School of Music, was crucial. “When you create dense harmony but are able to play with a hyper in-tune approach, it’s possible to make something that sounds really big,” Wendel says, adding that he rarely doubled the same notes twice. “I wanted this lush, big density while trying to hide the fact that it was all me.”
Some of the pieces, like Salvant’s mesmeric rendition of “I Loves You Porgy” feature 30 different woodwind parts. Sometimes the tenor sax goes through an octave pedal and is pitched lower, to create a bassline. Sometimes bass is handled by bassoon – or bassoons. Wendel and engineer Steve Wood got granular as parts were added, experimenting with reverbs of different lengths and depths, panning instruments to the extremes of the soundscape, using digital post-production tools to create a multidimensional space.
Wendel sent each artist a rough version of the completed arrangement but offered very little written (or verbal) instruction – believing that it was his responsibility to create an atmosphere in which his collaborators would feel comfortable. “These are just such strong musical identities – who am I to tell them anything? I wanted a situation where it was evident [from the arrangement] that I knew the artist well, and they could take it from there. I just wanted them to do what they do – to me I’m successful if I don’t have to say anything at all.”
In final form, these pieces reveal previously under-emphasized dimensions of Wendel’s musicianship – his deep understanding of classical harmony, his tactical deployments of dissonance, his knack for conjuring memorably lyrical counterpoint lines and swirling, impressionistic sonic arrays. Still, for all the forethought that went into these arrangements, the music feels alive. That’s directly attributable to Wendel’s improvisational dexterity on the tenor: In brief, dazzlingly expansive solo bursts, he stretches the melodic ideas beyond the confines of the score, refracting established themes into vibrant, unexpectedly shape-shifted variations.
More about Ben Wendel
Ben Wendel was born in Vancouver, Canada, in 1976 and grew up in Santa Monica, California. His band in high school, a quintet called Tres Gatos, included Terrace Martin (the saxophonist and producer who as part of the Brainfeeder collective has worked with artists such as Kendrick Lamar and whose recent effort Gray Area involves Wendel) and Alfred Darlington (the electronic artist and producer known as Daedelus).
Both remain close associates, part of Wendel’s impressively-diverse circle. Throughout his career, the saxophonist has pursued a genre-neutral Yes-To-All approach to music. He’s recorded or performed with legendary hitmakers (Prince, Snoop Dogg) and jazz firebrands (Aaron Parks, Ignacio Berroa, Taylor Eigsti, Linda May Han Oh, Antonio Sanchez, Gerald Clayton) and people whose work resists classification entirely (Louis Cole, Daedelus, Julia Holter, Moonchild).
Wendel has received an ASCAP Jazz Composer award and several New Works grants from Chamber Music America; he’s worked with conductor Kent Nagano on a series of concerts for the Festspiele Plus in Munich, Germany; he’s taught at USC and the New School in New York; he co-wrote the score for John Krasinski’s adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” And in the last twelve months, he has logged three separate weeks as the headliner at the Village Vanguard. Wendel is aware that this diverse range of activity makes him hard to pin down – a challenge that will only increase with the sweeping invention of All One.