I had the pleasure of returning to the Blue Whale this weekend, this time to check out the second night of the release party for saxophonist Ben Wendel’s new CD, “Frame.” It’s a great disc, featuring some of Wendell’s stellar contemporaries such as pianist Tigran Hamasyan, drummer Nate Wood, keyboardist Gerald Clayton and bassist Ben Street. Hamasyan and Wood were on hand for this gig, along with Adam Benjamin on keyboards, Larry Koonse on guitar, and Dave Robaire on bass.
Like the album, the set featured Wednel’s own music, notable for its well-orchestrated blend and restrained melodies, such as the opener, “What Was.” The atmosphere was amplified by the great vibe of the packed house, featuring the club’s characteristic mix of young and old, men and women, there to dig the music.
Wendel surprised many of them when he brought out a bassoon for his second tune, “Backbou.” His facility on the instrument is much more than a gimmick — the soft, reedy tone mixed with the rest of the group to produce a very satisfying shift in the mood, showing off Wednel’s expansive ear for timbre.
The next piece, “News,” started sparsely with Wendel joined only by Wood on drums. After an adventurous introduction, Robaire’s bass snuck in underneath and took them off on a fast-paced trio exploration. Wendel’s immaculate linear concept on the saxophone reminds me of Lester Young in its relentless fluidity, although his harmonic language is clearly of a different era. Again, Wendel’s group impressed with its ability to evoke different textural nuances within the trio format.
The rest of the band joined back in on “Jean and Renata,” one of my favorite tracks from the new CD. Played live, this tune served as a vehicle for some truly inspired improvisation by Koonse on guitar. The crowd’s energy rose along with Koonse’s, even emitting some scattered hoots and hollers that I don’t often hear from a mostly-white jazz audience. “Upwelling” brought the mood back down, with some trippy synth work by Benjamin laying the groundwork for more unique timbres: my favorite came when Hamasyan played a unison line on piano with Benjamin’s synth underneath an intense guitar solo — a perfectly weaving together the acoustic and electric sonic textures.
The band closed the evening with the title track from the new CD, “Frame,” a rhythmically adventuresome piece boiling with frenetic energy, barely contained by the six musicians. Hamasyan finally took an opportunity to stretch out and solo, haltingly developing his ideas over the complex meter.
I wish I could have stayed for more, and I’m sure that the many fans who did stick around weren’t disappointed. If you’re in the NYC area, check these guys out at the Jazz Gallery next week — and if you’re not, there’s always the CD, which is excellent. And if you’re in LA and haven’t been to the Blue Whale yet . . . well, I hope that after reading this you know that you’re missing out.