Ben Wendel – The Seasons (Motéma)

Throughout 2015, following in Tchaikovsky’s footsteps, saxophonist Ben Wendel released the first iteration of The Seasons, a series of YouTube duets with a different musician for each month of the year. More recently, a prestigious residency at the Village Vanguard in New York City gave him a platform to revamp the project with a full quintet assembled from his former cast of collaborators.

The resulting album preserves the charm and creative exuberance of the original compositions but sounds, at times, almost nothing like it. The duets of the first series were deeply interpersonal; each tune was tailor-made for a specific collaborator with the resulting dialogue captured on camera, sometimes in one of their homes. In the group setting, however, the focus is more on the music than the musicians themselves. Fans of the original series will find the songs tastefully and thrillingly beefed up, with exacting counterpoint swollen to rich harmony and arrangements reminiscent of chamber music exploded into a range of slick, propulsive grooves.

The four other members of Wendel’s ensemble qualify as luminaries in their own right, exemplifying the stylistic reach and unprecedented standards for professionalism that characterize their generation. Bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland form an impeccable unit, driving the group with funk- and hip-hop-inflected beats that range from understated (“October”) to rapturous (“April”), often within the same track (“December”). Pianist Aaron Parks plays a supportive role, cleverly fleshing out each piece’s harmonic palette and highlighting the classical influence evident in Wendel’s use of harmony and theme. Other than the bandleader himself, whose nimble improvisations tap into a seemingly bottomless well of inventiveness and heartfelt lyricism, guitarist Gilad Hekselman is responsible for most of the record’s memorable climaxes. He breathes fire with a thick blues-rock tone on tracks like “February” and “November.”

The Seasons doesn’t quite break new ground, but it is a triumph nonetheless for a group of stellar musicians who continue to outdo themselves.— Asher Wolf

The Authoritative Voice in Jazz