REVIEW: ‘High Heart’ – Ben Wendel

A BIG HEART… and a big impact! Saxophonist Ben Wendel’s new sextet release, featuring the superbly adroit voice of Michael Mayo, was an immediate ‘ear grab’ on its first hearing and has since gone on to prove itself as an album which occupies a quite distinct contemporary jazz groove.

Canadian-born, raised in Los Angeles, and now residing in New York, Wendel’s career has seen him work alongside artists including Tigran Hamasyan, Eric Harland, Joshua Redman, Linda May Han Oh, Prince, and is a founding member of Kneebody.



For High Heart, his fifth recording as leader, Shai Maestro and Gerald Clayton interchange piano and Fender Rhodes (a masterstroke), supported by the fiery, industrious rhythm section of double bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Nate Wood. The tenorist’s neat band integration (rather than static, upfront soloing), plus a precise melodic pairing with vocalist Mayo, defines this abundant exploration of his clearly well-crafted music; and what sets it particularly ‘high’ is the almost outrageous technique, synchronicity and rapidity of these players’ performances, delivering frissons of excitement reminiscent of 1970s fusion bands.

This is, however, emphatically a recording for the here and now, described as a statement on society’s ‘increasing complexity, oversaturation and social imbalance’ in an ‘increasingly impersonal time’. The album’s ‘cover heart’ interprets designer Oli Bentley’s son’s simple line drawing, which the five-year-old slipped under the door for him during a digital meeting with Wendel – and as Bentley says, The simplicity and innocence of the symbol, its link to the title we had just been discussing, and the human connection it made through a closed door – I knew there wasn’t anything I could possibly bring to this project that was more personal or contained more humanity than this”.

Eight original numbers draw the attention in, more and more deeply, the pensive title track’s swirling motion introducing Wendel’s and Mayo’s close partnership. Burning Bright (inspired by William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’) unlfurls the band’s wondrously agile interaction as shared vocal-and-sax phrases and keyboard improvisations pull in and out of focus across its constantly skittering rhythm (witness Nate’s Wood’s fabulous composure in the videos, linked below). Wendel’s compositional diversity is impressive, the mechanically angular piano and Rhodes intro of Kindly contrasting well with its legato (even soporific) repeated figure from sax and voice; and lofty hymn, Less, takes Mayo’s gentler, wordless tones up into the firmament, carried on waves of piano and effects.

Up there in the album’s highlights, with hints of Pat Metheny and Weather Report, is positively bustling Drawn Away, complete with bluesy, Latinesque piano break. But more than anything, it’s the busy, combined weave of each individual contribution which elevates it – a real repeat-player, and a true feel-good. A sense of urgency, perhaps reflecting the album’s warning of ‘impersonality’, is heard in disquieted Fearsome, with Wendel’s sprawling tenor the orator. Similarly, the dazed soundtrack vibe of Darling – dedicated to a dear friend – feels ominous, as if to suggest the theme of sleepwalking into dispassion, before Traveler’s effected piano and percussion lead away to vocally harmonized meditation.

In High Heart, Ben Wendel’s music appears to progressively ‘commentate’ on the need for greater societal empathy. Above all, though, it’s the zeal of this band which shines through in gloriously exhilarating fashion.

Released on 30 October 2020 and available as CD, vinyl or digital download at Edition Records and Bandcamp.

Videos: Burning Bright and Drawn Away.

 

Ben Wendel tenor saxophone, EFX, piano, wurlitzer, bassoon
Shai Maestro piano, Fender Rhodes
Gerald Clayton piano, Fender Rhodes
Michael Mayo voice, EFX
Joe Sanders double bass
Nate Wood drums

benwendel.com

Edition Records – EDN1162 (2020)

‘The Pauper & the Magician’ – Ari Hoenig

AriHoenig

IT APPEARS that US drummer and composer Ari Hoenig’s creativity isn’t confined to the stage and the recording studio. His mostly original music on this eighth release as leader, The Pauper & the Magician, is inspired by the improvised stories he tells to his two small children – specifically, a tale of “a powerful, dark sorcerer who, in a moment of weakness and boredom, passes on his book of evil magic to a pauper.”

Part of the New York scene for almost twenty years, Philadelphia-born Hoenig has contributed to the line-ups of Joshua Redman, Chris Potter and Mike Stern (to name but a few) and has appeared with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis and Gerry Mulligan. His colleagues on this quintet recording are guitarist Gilad Hekselman, tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, pianist Shai Maestro and bassist Orlando le Fleming.

Hoenig’s musical storytelling here is dynamically potent, possessing a distinct aura of fable and mysticism characterised by his propulsive prog-tinged writing and the band’s colourful jazz improvisations; and the drummer’s own ornamented techniques impressively bind the multifarious elements together without dominating. Indeed, the album’s five ‘chapters’ (along with an affectionate, closing ‘goodnight kiss’ track) are spacious enough to slowly unravel their mysterious, shifting storylines. Thus, opening title track The Pauper & the Magician, at almost ten minutes’ duration, weaves a downward-spiralling motif, as if descending into an unknown kingdom, buoyed by mischievously-dancing tenor and piano, Hekselman’s subtle wah-wah rhythms and Hoenig’s perpetually intricate percussion.

I’ll Think About It‘s initial sprightliness conjures big-band swing, though all the while the adventure twists and turns through darker, searching passageways, only to be illuminated again by the strong daylight of rippling piano, jaunty sax-and-guitar riffs and the indubitable flair of Hoenig’s crisp execution. Central to these 46 minutes is the eastern-inflected drama of The Other, its edge-of-seat energy glinting with rapid jazz brilliance. Here, Shai Maestro’s effusive piano dances over the flamboyance of bass and drums as Hekselman and Pennicott share complex, whirling lines; and the relentless anthemic progression confirms the album’s folktale basis.

The particular echoic delicacy of Gilad Hekselman’s guitar style is to the fore in Lyric – a calming jazz interlude whose tender melody (redolent, at times, of Weather Report) is embellished by Pennicott’s tenor phrasing, yet also punctuated by snappy rhythmic flashes from Hoenig’s precise, multi-timbred battery; and Alana is similarly luxurious, Pennicott’s pellucid piano and the measured vibrato of Pennicott’s tenor providing an end-of-journey feel-good. And that ‘goodnight kiss’? Well, Jimmie Davis’ familiar You Are My Sunshine (which might otherwise feel incongruous) cheerily plays out amidst Hoenig’s softly-malleted kit and a generally jaunty jazz demeanour until ‘lights out’.

By turns dramatic and ambrosial, it’s to be hoped that Ari Hoenig might reveal further jazz chronicles of this calibre. Released on 26 February 2016 (in the UK and Ireland, through Lyte Records), The Pauper & the Magician is also available, as CD or download, via links at Ari Hoenig’s website.

 

Ari Hoenig drums
Gilad Hekselman guitar
Tivon Pennicott tenor saxophone
Shai Maestro piano
Orlando le Fleming bass

arihoenig.com

Lyte Records – LR036 (2016)