Canadian-American saxophonist Ben Wendel (late of Kneebody) has released his second solo outing, Frame—a mix of caution and beauty. While nothing on the CD is especially revelatory or trailblazing, there is much to enjoy and some to admire as well.
Wendel’s career to date has included not only the aforementioned group, Kneebody, but collaborations with and/or support for a wide spectrum of musicians from rap to pop to hard-to-categorize experimental artists. Wendel has worked in forms from film soundtrack to hip-hop. If Kneebody’s allure was a capacity to incorporate eclectic musical forms into a comprehensive whole, Wendel’s solo efforts tend to display his varied tastes and abilities without (oddly, given the CD’s title) any kind of frame uniting them. While I would hesitate to say that putting a label on a musician is a necessary or desirable thing, being difficult to categorize in and of itself is not a positive either. While Wendel’s talent and range are evident, he displays them here at the risk of not having a target audience or producing a coherent set (all but a cover of a Dizzy Gillespie tune are originals).
The sound here ranges from a chorale surrounding Wendel as soloist weaving in and out of the larger sound, to more intimate pairings and trios within a group framework. The bigger pieces seem to my ear the weaker, as if Wendel settles for size when his inspiration flags. The more intimate sound—most especially evident on the Gillespie cover “Con Alma” played with pianist Gerald Clayton—shows Wendel’s strength, a capacity for imagination and “thinking out loud” in service of squeezing every drop of beauty and meaning from a tune.
“Backbou” highlights Wendel’s playful side, bouncing a bright melody between the soloist and group. If “Backbou” is the most immediately likeable track, it also rewards repeated listening with its transparent textures and inventive interplay.
I would be remiss here if I did not note the exceptionally strong supporting work of drummer Nate Wood (also of Kneebody) whose contributions on this CD range from growing the backbone of tunes to supple, flexible metric variation underpinning both small group sound and the larger chorale style works. He is splendid throughout.