Why you need to hear Ben Wendel — online and in person

Saxophonist Ben Wendel’s latest album, The Seasons, evokes emotional impressions of every time of year, passing through stages of bustling life, warmth, and hibernal loneliness.

Design by Jamie Sandel — click for hi-res image

But The Seasons isn’t just an album. It’s the next form of an evolving project that Wendel has been exploring for years, a concept piece whose many forms offer some insight into Wendel’s mastery as a composer, improviser, arranger and bandleader — and a connector within today’s jazz world. The latest iteration of that project is Wendel’s Seasons Band, a quintet of modern jazz heavyweights that is touring across the States and abroad. We’re very excited to host the band’s D.C. stop at our Traveling Loft this Saturday.

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But if the Seasons Band is part of something bigger, what else is there to know before you see them live? I have some suggestions about where to start.

Ben Wendel’s original “Seasons” project debuted as a suite of 12 YouTube videos. Each was dedicated to the month in which it was released, and they all featured Wendel in duet with a different musical collaborator. The videos are vivid, with multi-camera views of the performances and B-roll footage of the two musicians hanging out before and after the sessions. The venues are beautiful, ranging from empty lofts and studios to churches, clubs and living rooms, and they often support the energy of the song.

In the video for “March,” Wendel and bassist Matt Brewer play a melancholy duet under a cloud of dim, incandescent bulbs at the Douglass Street Music Collective.

The Seasons project was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s serialised work of the same name. Wendel’s wife, a pianist, recounted to him how the original “Seasons” work was released month by month in a music magazine — a work of art made for people who follow art, supported by collective buy-in. That model is surprisingly well-suited to the quicksand-like terrain of the modern music industry, where expensive full-length albums generally gain less traction than small, digestible pieces released steadily over time. Wendel quickly saw the success of his gambit: young jazz fans were drawn in by the music, and hungrily tore through the different videos. (The video below, “July,” currently has 236,000 views on YouTube.)

To achieve this connection with audiences, it’s clear that Wendel thinks not only as a musician and composer, but as a producer. These videos seek to expand and heighten the listener’s experience of a recorded piece, re-introducing the humanity and physicality that they might experience in a live performance. And the B-reel footage emphasizes part of what started the entire project: Wendel’s friendships and musical connections to other New York-based leaders of the jazz world.

Those leaders are reason enough to check out the videos. Each one has a voice on their instrument as distinctive as Wendel’s, and it’s very clear that the pieces were written with their musical vision in mind. “July,” a sweet and hopeful midsummer song, couldn’t be more at home than underneath the fingers of folk-jazz guitar virtuoso Julian Lage.

As he was making these videos, Wendel was carrying the momentum of his duets into a larger band with the release of his 2016 album, What We Bring, which featured a couple “Seasons” compositions, re-arranged and re-titled. “Fall,” below, is a quartet adaptation of “November” featuring a mind-blowing band of Gerald Clayton (piano), Joe Sanders (bass), and Henry Cole (drums).

Finally, in 2018, Wendel re-arranged every duet for a new quintet. That’s the group you’ll hear at Tropicalia, performing electric, live-room-ready versions of these “chamber jazz” compositions. Check out “October” below, with the full band — and if you’re curious, head back to the original duet between Wendel and Hekselman to compare and contrast the two.

Don’t miss your chance to check out this rising star work his magic on a packed room this Saturday. Get your tickets now; we’ll see you on U Street.

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Jamie Sandel

About Jamie Sandel

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Jamie is an arts organizer and musician with a background in music composition and performance, writing, improvisation studies, sound and graphic design, and theater. In addition to his leader work as a jazz violinist/bassist, he regularly takes part in cross-genre collaborations up and down the east coast. A DMV native, Jamie recently returned to the area after some time in Massachusetts, where he assisted the Amherst College Concert Office and the Amherst Symphony Orchestra. He graduated with a degree in music from Amherst College. Reach Jamie at jamie@capitalbop.com. Follow him at @wjsandel.

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