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There is a beautiful and mysterious quality to multi-instrumentalist Ben Wendel's Frame. It is as if the hot breath from one of his horns has blown some ancient film away to reveal an iridescent object that begins to oscillate and spin, changing colors and hues, mesmerizing as it spins and swings with uncharacteristic swagger. All this seems both real and unreal as Wendel's singular, hypnotic voice unfurls. The saxophonist inhabits a sound as close to singing through the reed as is humanly possible. In so doing, he has perfected vocalizing in the manner of Nat "King" Cole combined with Ben Webster. Such is the velvet and whispering nature of Wendel's tone and texture. Of course, the colors that emerge from the bell of his horn are another matter. These come from a soulful palette that includes such a myriad of hues that they are difficult to count. His musical canvas is so filled with a riot of colors that a musical carnival ensues.
Wendel is also a composer of considerable invention and ingenuity. This album is not called Frame for nothing. For here, the idiom of jazz forms the outer perimeter of the music. The material in the frame is an ever changing paintinga moveable feast for the ear, heart and soul. Wendel paints with fey colors; his music has the effect of fluttering gently like a diaphanous water color work that is wet and dripping as it morphs from one legato passage to another. Thus the work here appears to form a suite of songsall with beginnings and middles and ends that are tantalizing and drive into the center of the heart. The music of "Chorale," for instance, is like a shimmering dart aimed at that sweet spot in the soul where every ache is unforgettable. Nothing describes that feeling better than Wendel's extraordinarily touching re-imagining of Dizzy Gillespie's classic missive, "Con Alma."
The saxophonist/bassoonist is a fine writer of passionate portraits. Two of his finest are "Jean and Renata" and "Julia." The former paints a playful picture of two characters. Their differences are highlighted by Wendel's inner counterpoint, the two musical lines entwined like a DNA molecule that pirouettes magically to describe the two ladies in question. "Julia" is much more circumspect, as if the composer is portraying someone whom he has a deepening respect for. His melodic line here is more somber and upward-looking.
The musicians on Frame have a marvelous sympathy for, and understanding of, the overall concept of the album. Thus, they play well within themselves while supporting the thesis that the music must swirl and swoop within the framework of an idiom that is constantly changing. In so doing, they create music that is as elastic as jazz will ever be.
Track Listing: Chorale; Clayland; Con Alma; Backbou; Jean and Renata; Blocks; Frame; Leaving; Julia.
Personnel: Ben Wendel: saxophones, bassoon, melodica; Gerald Clayton: piano (1-3); Tigran Hamasyan: piano (4,6,7); Nir Felder: guitar; Adam Benjamin: piano (1,4,6,7), Fender Rhodes (8,9); Ben Street: bass; Nate Wood: drums.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.