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Tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel uses the eight self-composed tracks on his fifth session as a leader to muse about a theme that undoubtedly perplexes many jazz musicians: In an increasingly impersonal time, how does one create art that’s unerringly personal? His bracing answer is a session that veers calculatingly between the light of reflective, ethereal works to the darkness of rhythmically agitated, high-energy takes that spotlight the leader’s piercing sax attacks and occasional ingenious use of bassoon, Wurlitzer organ, piano and EFX (a device, popular in 1980s fusion, that alters the sound of an instrument or voice).
Wendel’s compositions are the essence of simplicity, often based on little more than repeated two-bar phrases voiced by the session’s two keyboardists, Gerald Clayton and Shai Maestro, on both acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes. This minimalist approach to melodic structure serves to unleash the creative blend of acoustic instruments, including Joe Sanders’ upright bass and Nate Wood’s drums, with the orchestral texture-enhancing presence of EFX and electronic keys.
Other than the leader, the date’s two most potent contributors are vocalist Michael Mayo and drummer Wood. The singer’s mood-crafting wordless vocals, often electronically enhanced, emerge as the session’s most indelible sonic signature. On the up-tempo “Burning Bright,” he is spotlighted in dancing unisons with Wendel’s scurrying sax lines and scatting his own darting solos. Mayo taps a mystic vibe with angelic whole tones on the languorous “Traveler” and the meditative “Less.” Wood’s bombastic accents and crisp, thrashing cymbal work on “Drawn Away” are riveting, while his cascade of rhythmically autonomous rimshots on “Kindly” are particularly resourceful.
The mesmeric quality of the title tune, a balancing act of stylistic references that range from vintage fusion to free jazz, affirms that, although the circumstances of today may be increasingly trying, creative musicians will always find a way to triumph. — Mark Holston