Street Date: February 3, 2022
Bass luminary Ben Wolfe presents Unjust, an electrifying follow-up to his critically-acclaimed 2019 release Fatherhood. Unjust celebrates the striking interplay between multiple ensembles driven by the same steadfast rhythm section. As with Fatherhood, Unjust features a multi-generational cast of familiar collaborators and young phenoms. The bassist is joined here by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonists Immanuel Wilkins and Nicole Glover, vibraphonist Joel Ross, pianists Addison Frei and Orrin Evans, and drummer Aaron Kimmel.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, when the right musicians are placed into a room together, it can result in unexpected magic – individual performances that honor the conception and philosophy of the pieces, but marry together to create a cohesive unit where these disparate voices speak as one. Even rarer is the occasion when these voices come together to say something truly unique. Such is the case with Unjust.
During the course of a career spanning over four decades, Wolfe has earned his stature as one of the forefront composers of our time. Wolfe’s works have been described as “Mingus and Miles Davis meet Bartok and Bernard Herrmann” (Ben Ratliff – The New York Times). Wolfe’s tenth album as a bandleader is another stellar recorded document of the artist’s compositional prowess, taking listeners on a sonic journey of retrospection, insightfulness and exuberance. Wolfe makes wonderful use of instrumentation choices on Unjust with some compositions that include piano and many that do not, pieces that make use of the vibraphone as a melodic instrument, and some that allow the instrument to reside in the rhythm section, creating subtle variety in the fabric of each song. Wolfe indicates “this recording is very much about the interaction of the musicians with each other, with the material, and in some ways, with the studio itself.”
On the album’s title track, “Unjust”, we hear a piano-less quartet with Nicholas Payton and Nicole Glover at the helm. One can’t help but hear shades of Monk in the piece’s melody and chord changes, a connection Payton, Glover and Wolfe all explore individually on tremendously soulful solos. Kimmel, too, takes an expedition of his own with a salient opening, marking his almighty stake in Wolfe’s rhythm section. Wolfe notes “I have great respect for the artistry with which Aaron Kimmel plays the drums and creates music, evidenced throughout this recording… It was a complete joy recording this record with Aaron.”
Payton’s supple melodic refrains are featured heavily throughout the release, and particularly on the album’s opener “The Heckler”. On this piece, the rhythm section burns through a bright-tempoed swing while Payton tells a fervent story with his horn. Wolfe reflects “Nicholas Payton whom I have known for many years, is someone I’ve always had great respect for… Nicholas is a brilliant and extremely intuitive musician; he brings a deep understanding and love of the music. His sound is beautiful, full of history and feeling. With all the gifts Nicholas possesses, he still completely resides within the ensemble.”
Joel Ross and Immanuel Wilkins play pivotal roles in the ensemble, each complimenting the other perfectly throughout. Wolfe notes “Though having strong and individual voices, I often find myself writing for them as if they’re one musician… It’s always inspiring and a joy to play with them both.” Ross and Wilkins, who both also appeared on 2019’s Fatherhood, perhaps shine the most brightly on “Hats Off to Rebay” and “Sideways”. These tracks demonstrate the tremendous sound created when the two players double a melody, and then embark on melodic invention. Regarding saxophonist Nicole Glover, Wolfe remarks “Nicole’s playing on the song ‘Lullaby in D’ is perfect and couldn’t be more beautiful…I felt she would bring something special, but I had no idea the amount of poise she would bring.”
Pianists Addison Frie and Orrin Evans each bring their unique voices to Wolfe’s musical world throughout the release. Frie’s sensitivity and restraint are on full display with “Eventually”, which sees the pianist offering precise countermelodies to Joel Ross. Wolfe notes “Addison is the rare musician who plays with both strength and humility.” Wolfe’s long-time collaborator Orrin Evans provides soulful solowork on “Bob French”, a tribute to French – the inimitable jazz drummer and radio show host. Wolfe shares, “Orrin brings a special quality to how he makes the music feel; his playing encourages freedom and fearlessness. “The Corridor” is a stand-out tune shaped by mischief, the track features a unique trio format of vibraphone, bass and drums. Articulate malleting from Ross segways into one of the bandleader’s few solos on the record. Though corridors imply darkness, Wolfe’s has a vivid, intuitive course. Wolfe indicates “This project was a gathering of musicians I believed would find common ground with each other and would also find some magic within the ensemble. I very much enjoyed the process and I’m extremely proud to present “Unjust.”
Street Date: August 30th, 2019
Stalwart bassist Ben Wolfe is proud to announce the release of his new album, Fatherhood - a heartfelt body of work which pays tribute to the bassist’s father, Dan Wolfe who passed away in 2018. This ten-track collection of nine originals and one cover also serves as a meditation on what it means for Ben to be a father to his own son, Milo. With Fatherhood, the bassist and composer made a conscious decision to step off the fast lane for a moment and make music of introspection and mourning. “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. Ben is thrilled to have this record brought to fruition by a collection of both familiar collaborators and young phenoms - the bassist is joined by trumper Giveton Gelin, saxophonists Immanuel Wilkins, Ruben Fox, JD Allen, trombonist Steve Davis, pianists Luis Perdomo and Orrin Evans, vibraphonist Joel Ross and drummer Donald Edwards. As on two previous recording sessions, Ben drafted the Grammy-nominated violinist Jesse Mills to put together a stellar string quartet, which features Mills alongside Goergy Valtchev on violin, Kenji Bunch on viola and Wolfram Koessel on cello. Mindful of his father’s judicious approach to performance, Ben surmises that “this record is about the overall sound of the ensemble.”
Ben and his dad experienced the customary roller coaster ride typical of father-son relationships, but in music they forged their deepest bonds. A former violinist who spent a season with the San Antonio Symphony, Dan Wolfe raised his son to love all sorts of music. “He introduced me to jazz,” Wolfe explains. “He loved Monk. He loved Lester Young and Billie Holiday. And he taught me a lot about music...he was not into showing off or playing extra notes for no apparent reason”.
Wolfe’s use of strings on seven of the ten tracks beautifully unites the jazz and classical worlds that father and son revelled in. This is not the first time the Baltimore-native augmented his ensemble with a quartet of strings, but as a tribute to his father it takes on a new significance. During the recording process of Fatherhood, Wolfe made the unorthodox decision to record without headphones and insisted that the band play together in the same room. As a result, the recording sounds rich and warm.
Fatherhood opens with “Blind Seven,” a track which features two brilliant young cats barely in their ‘20s—Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone and Joel Ross on vibraphone. Rounding out the rhythm section is Venezuelan pianist/composer Luis Perdomo and drummer Donald Edwards, who has been a regular collaborating partner of Wolfe’s for at least 25 years now. “Blind Seven,” (a reference to the card game “spades,”) is a classic from the Ben Wolfe songbook first recorded in 1996. This arrangement only bears a passing resemblance to its earlier bopp-ish version - the melody doesn’t come in until two minutes into the tune, as Wilkins and Ross trade complex angular phrases against the string quartet, which plays contrapuntally against the uptempo rhythm section and horn lines. The composition then moves into a short, unaccompanied piece based on an eleven-note motive. This “Blind Seven” diverges so radically from the original that fans may think of it is as a new composition.
The album moves forward with “Gone Now” - a ballad which reflects on what is lost when relationships end. While the lush string arrangement conjures a sense of nostalgia, young British tenor player, Ruben Fox, channels Lester Young with his light airy tone, slight vibrato, and elegant lyricism. Another stand-out track from the album is “Uncle Leslie,” which pays tribute to the composer’s son Milo and to the people that have become significant figures in the youngster’s life. Ben introduced everyone around Milo, especially fellow musicians, as “uncle,” and the circle included a female neighbor of theirs named Leslie whom he dubbed “Uncle Leslie.” This tune is an exquisite slow-medium waltz featuring Gelin, Ross, Evans, and a solo by Wolfe. “The Kora La” is a mesmerizing piece of music. Kora La refers to the mountain pass through the Himalayas linking China and Nepal. The piece was originally commissioned by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem for the Harlem in the Himalayas Jazz Series and premiered at the Rubin Museum of Art. The string quartet’s opening reminded Wolfe of mountains, and the grooves that follow as the road through those mountains. However the real inspiration for the music can be traced back to Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century - a book which tells the history of modern and experimental music.
“First Things First” slows down the tempo to the kind of fox trot cadence, reminiscent of those penned by Thelonious Monk. Trombonist Steve Davis joins Ross on the front line, backed by Perdomo, Edwards, Wolfe, and strings. Fatherhood closes with “What’s New” - the album’s sole cover track. On this 1939 standard composed by fellow bassist Bob Haggart with lyrics by Johnny Burke, while Wolfe remains loyal to the song’s roots as a slow, romantic ballad, he succeeds in re-harmonizing and rearranging the song in ways consistent with his generation. Wolfe knows his father would have loved the band’s reinterpretation of this classic gem, and so its position as album closer truly encompasses the thoughtful homage Ben envisioned Fatherhood achieving.
As Wynton Marsalis said, “Ben Wolfe swings with authority.” Bassist-composer Ben Wolfe has released eight albums as a composer. Of the music on his MAXJAZZ debut “No Strangers Here” The New York Times says, “In this music Mingus and Miles Davis meet Bartok and Bernard Herrmann”. Chamber Music America awarded him the 2004 New Works: Creation and Presentation Program Grant, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. As a result of this award, Wolfe was able to compose his extended composition Contradiction: Music for Sextet. Wolfe also recently made his mark as a film composer, working with Matthew Modine on the film short, I Think I Thought. At the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, The New York Sun reviewed his work on this film as, “a standout music score.” Born in Baltimore, Maryland and raised in Portland, Oregon, Wolfe has gained a large following from his performances with Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., and Diana Krall. Early on in his career, he formed a Duo with Harry Connick Jr. and went on to record over a dozen albums and soundtracks. During his years with Connick, he performed on numerous world tours as musical director. He then joined the Wynton Marsalis Septet and remained until it disbanded. Wolfe also became an integral part of Diana Krall’s touring band and played on many of her recordings, including the Grammy Award winning CD, “When I Look In Your Eyes.”
When a member of The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), Wolfe performed with Joe Henderson, Doc Cheatham, Jon Hendricks, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Billy Higgins, among others. Other artists he has also recorded with include Branford Marsalis, Orrin Evans, James Moody, Eric Reed, and Benny Green. In addition to the CDs mentioned, Ben’s other recordings as a leader include “13 Sketches” (1996) and “Bagdad Theater” (1997), both released on Mons Records; “Murray’s Cadillac” (2000) on Amosaya Music; “My Kinda Beautiful” (2004) on Planet Arts Records; “Ben Wolfe Quintet: Live at Smalls” (2011); and “From Here I See” (2013) Maxjazz.
Ben is currently on the teaching faculty at The Juilliard School: Jazz Division.
THE BIG TAKEOVER
"If you need a straight shot of pure jazz, Unjust is the highest quality stuff on the shelf." Read the review here.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
“As such, this new music may leave listeners pining for the more expansive works. Yet these compositions sound complete, like big ideas distilled into concise and satisfying statements.” Read the review here.
MAKING A SCENE
“"Wolfe continues to prove to be in the higher echelon of composers, creatively setting up unique configurations that deliver compelling harmonics and that strike the perfect balance between contemporary and traditional." Read the review here.
"Unjust rewards you with great tunes and creates its own world." Read the review here.
HOT HOUSE JAZZ MAGAZINE
"On Unjust, Ben deploys combinations from trio to sextet, with an emphasis on sonic clarity." Read the review in the March 2023 issue of Hot House Jazz Magazine.
“Bassist-leader Ben Wolfe is an imperious foundation..” Read the complete review in the April 2023 issue of Jazzwise Magazine.
“Unjust is a brilliant work of melodic ensemble writing and superb playing by a stellar intergenerational crew.” Full review in the April 2023 issue of DownBeat Magazine.
LAMENT FOR A STRAIGHT LINE
"Unjust uses decidedly bop-inflected designs to tell its story, a bluesy tale that lets soloists share personal perspectives while still bolstering the band’s collective impact." Read the review here.
TAKE EFFECT REVIEWS
"The bass wizard Ben Wolfe brings in an excellent ensemble for this rhythmic and very intricate listen..." Read full review here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"On a compositional and sound organization level, Unjust is one of the brightest jazz jewels of recent years." Check out the full review in Italian here.
NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORDS
"Wolfe’s creative meshing of distinctive forms and genres, mature alteration of previously released material, elegant arrangements of difficult music and strong leadership of this large ensemble are its more noteworthy characteristics." Review here.
"The strings create rich atmospheres, going from Bartok toswing on the dramatic “The Kora LA” while riding alongside Ross’s vibes on the mood changing “Blind Seven.” Elliptical sounds and atmospheres get askance on the sharp “Edged” while Wolfe lets everyone sway to “Gone Now.” Clever charts that work wonders and demand attention." Review here.
"This programme of post-bop stands out from the crowd for a couple of reasons. Firstly the writing for strings lends the music a depth of character it might otherwise lack, and secondly the soloists have plenty to say and the depth of knowledge to say it eloquently without ever overstating their case." Review here.
Ben Wolfe on the Chicago Jazz Audio Experience Podcast - listen to full interview here!
"Here Wolfe takes us on a complex musical journey merging chamber music, modal themes, straight ahead jazz , and a touch of dissonance." Read the full review here.
SOUND IN REVIEW
“Fatherhood is an outstanding collection of tunes performed by a revolving cast of excellent jazz musicians.”
“Wolfe branches out on Fatherhood with his own ensemble - featuring an eclectic mix of heavyweight musicians”. Read the full review here.
THE JAZZ PAGE
“Solid musicianship and music make this one really special recording.” Read the full review here.
CHICAGO JAZZ MAGAZINE
“Brilliant composer, masterful bandleader and virtuosic performer, Ben Wolfe is uniquely suited to pull off an ambitious project like this. And he definitely succeeds at it. Fatherhood is a multilayered and thematically unified work about the singular bond between father and son.” Read the full review here.
"...on an album-closing rendition of Bob Haggart’s classic “What’s New,” the intimacy of the sound only adds to the emotional impact, as Ross’ vibraphone all but melts into the string accompaniment." Read the full review here.
"Mature jazz is the result of this assemblage of well-rounded and versatile musicians interpreting compositions that will have no trouble to connect with the audiences." Read the full review here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"When Ben Wolfe’s father (Dan Wolfe) passed away in 2018, Ben was moved to write several compositions to tribute “Fatherhood.”...On Track two, “Gone Now” you can hear the sad lament to the loss of a loved one. ...I’m certain Ben Wolfe’s father would be very proud of this work. It’s a wonderful and expressive tribute to “Fatherhood.” Read the full review here.
"Ben Wolfe, the ever-tasteful, always swinging bassist, lost his father last year. As a tribute (and no doubt as part of his grieving process), he decided to make an album, calling it Fatherhood. Due out on Aug. 30, it’s an earnest and often beautifully crafted statement, featuring longtime colleagues as well as shining up-and-comers." Track premiere here.
"Ben has unassumingly achieved an admirable feat with this offering, fully incorporating a string quartet into a jazz setting with admirable ease." Full review here.