If Ben Wendel's fifth outing as a leader High Heart
shows anything, it's that the saxophonist is ever advancing. While this may seem a fait accompli for a card-carrying member of the shapeshifting collective Kneebody
, Wendel's worthy solo efforts have been notably more in a traditionally-sounding vein and thus his innovations were perhaps a bit less readily evident to ears acclimated to that other side of his resume. And yes, by comparison to Kneebody, High Heart
still tacks toward a more traditional jazz approach but there are some notable departures from his previous solo efforts.
One is that High Heart
is arguably a concept albumif not fully-fledged, then certainly a conceptually inspired one. Paraphrasing Wendel's liner notes, the album's premise generally coalesces around navigating the ramifications of the digital age's entanglements and enablements, but more specifically on the question of how art can regain meaningful human connection in the increasingly over-saturated, impersonal world the age brings with it.
Next, and crucial to the exploration of his concept, is Wendel's choice of instrumentation and personnel. Joined by acoustic bassist Joe Sanders
and long-time Kneebody cohort Nate Wood
on drums, the sextet takes an interesting turn in sonic potential with the addition of dual keyboardists Shai Maestro
and Gerald Clayton
, who compliment each other alternately on Rhodes or piano. The cherry on top though is the inclusion of vocal phenom Michael Mayo
, whose wordless singing might serve to reinforce Wendel's melodic sax lines, harmonize them, shadow chordal figures, or handle lead and improvisational duties. Importantly, Mayo never assumes the "vocalist backed by band" role here but uses his voice as another integrated instrument. This gives the ensemble's sound a refreshing additional layer of aural identity but it's also one that goes a long way to embody Wendel's conceptual themes for High Heart
And indeed, if the reflection of the mingling dualities inherent to those themes gives license for some tasteful sonic embellishments, it also proves to be a wonderful exposition for Wendel's dynamic range as a composer. From the lush melodicism of the title track and the driving compulsions of "Burning Bright," to the haunting skeletal arpeggios of "Darling" and pure, stunning hymn-like redemption of "Less," it's a breadth made more striking by such compositional facets being in close juxtaposition.
There are great solos and individual contributions all over High Heart
(Wendel himself has never sounded better)but the real meat and potatoes here is in hearing what the ensemble does with Wendel's sometimes challenging structures. Witness Wendel and Mayo's (seemingly random, yet tandem) counter-metric lines gracefully rendered over the group figures in "Kindly." "Burning Bright" could surely be a hot mess in only slightly lesser hands but its tight intricacies are delivered here with deceptive ease. But for a great example of the overall synergy, see the album's centerpiece, "Drawn Away." (video below) With its shifting, riff-based foundation(that might make Led Zeppelin jealous if they were a jazz band)overlaid with syncopated, close-harmonized melodic lines, it's not the most forgiving of templates, but the band's collective soar is palpable when the kinetics start heating up. An enviable chemistry to be sure and proof positive of Wendel's incisiveness as a bandleader.
In a harrowing year (that somehow has still yielded an abundance of great music), Ben Wendel has given us a standout album that is at once challenging, inspiring, and an advancebut most importantly, one that lives up to its title.
Ben Wendel: saxophone, bassoon, EFX; Shai Maestro: piano, Fender Rhodes; Gerald Clayton:
piano, Fender Rhodes; Michael Mayo: voice, EFX; Joe Sanders: double bass; Nate Wood: