I’m really privileged to be able to bring you the latest addition to the blog: An interview with saxophonist Ben Wendel. Ben is someone who inspires me on a daily basis and a figure in music that I definitely look up to. His latest album, What We Bring available on Motema Music and to buy here is his third solo album and I’d really recommend a listen.
“A naturally inquisitive musician whose credentials branch out beyond jazz. He’s a member of Kneebody, a postmillennial groove band with a sizable following, as well as an accomplished solo artist and producer.”- Nate Chinen, The New York Times.
A huge thanks to Ben for giving such an affluent insight into his life and music.
The Jazz Gospel: You describe What We Bring as an album dedicated to masters from the past, peers from the present and musicians of the future, which is a beautiful statement. How does the album represent this and how does this relate to you personally?
Ben Wendel: Every track on the album is somehow influenced by a specific artist. The title track Amian is Naima written backwards. Musically speaking, you have a relatively simple diatonic melody over a constant static bass line with dense chords in between: in a general way, it’s my nod to Coltrane and in a more specific way, it’s a nod to the compositional shape of Naima, although obviously the song goes in a very different direction. Another example would be the piece called Song Song, which I wrote for Ahmad Jamal. It was inspired by his composition, Poinciana. I loved the static, meditative quality of Poinciana and how he arranged it: Song Song, both through the bass line and actually through the grove (which is loosely inspired by the original drum beat) is kind of connected to that.
Spring and Fall, are pieces that I repurposed from the seasons project. Those pieces were originally the ones that I wrote for Taylor Eigsti and Aaron Parkes and so were written with them in mind. There is also a piece called Austin, which is dedicated to Austin Peralta: Austin honestly was really going to be a musician of the future but unfortunately passed away too soon. All the tracks on the album relate to me personally in the sense that they’ve all affected my path as a musician. Some of these people have directly passed though my life and or continue to a part of it.
TJG: The album features two compositions from your seasons project. How has that project influenced your writing elsewhere and can you talk about your compositional approach?
BW: Generally, I’ve had the most success as a writer specifically writing towards situations. I very rarely write without some kind of goal in mind and so the seasons project was the perfect example of that. I first thought of the idea before I heard the music, then actually, most of the time the music came very easily because all I had to do was think about the artist that I wanted to write for and just think of all the things that I loved about their musicianship. Usually, that would work as an inspirational springboard into writing the piece itself.
Whether it is writing for Kneebody, the Seasons Project or for other albums, I’m generally thinking about the specific musicians. I’m then thinking about the idea of what it is first, creating a structure for me to be able to work within, which I find triggers ideas faster.
TJG: The combination of styles and idioms is a defining factor of a lot of your music and listening to the previews, What We Bring clearly continues with these elements. How do you achieve such an effortless crossover between so many different types of music within your writing?
BW: I’d like to say it’s something different than that. There is no effort because what I’m doing is just writing music that I like to write. When I write, I’m not thinking about genre, I don’t even think genre exists. The more I listen to all “genres” of music, the more I see it all as just music and I think a lot of artists will give that reply. The music that I write is the music that I love and is the reflection of my personality and the things that have influenced me. So it’s just Ben Wendel music. The fact that that music contains influences from a lot of these “genres” is not because I’m making an effort to blend genres or combine anything, it’s just literally a reflection of what I listen to, what I like and then how that is reflected in my compositional voice.
TJG: As a saxophonist who has developed some very personal and unique aesthetics, can you talk about your journey in developing your own language, sound and voice?
BW: It kind of relates to the album too. I keep talking about this idea of all artists being on a continuum, essentially meaning that we’re a part of a pathway that has been laid down by the people before us. Then, we’re taking that energetically and moving it along for other people take it after us.
The big transition for me is when I was first getting started. I thought that the path to getting a unique and personal voice was by editing and denying voices from coming through me: I thought that’s the way it would work. I would solo and then play some Kenny Garratt or Michael Brecker line and then tell myself not to do that, that’s their voice, not yours. As you might imagine, that’s a really difficult way to play when you’re sort of doing this philosophy of “No”.
At some point, I decided to do the opposite. I thought screw it, I’m just going to play freely and I’m not going to judge what comes out. In fact, when I play something that reminds me of whatever artist, that’s just my way of honoring that artist. Even if I try to sound like that artist and play the same language, it’s not going to sound the same. Ironically, when I started to play with that kind of philosophy in mind, that’s generally the time when people started to tell me that I sounded unique.
Basically, my journey to discovering my own language was to actually allow all of my influences to just come through me freely, knowing that by the time they actually come through me, they don’t sound like the original source anymore.
TJG: Your approach to improvisation reflects a thought process that is highly sophisticated especially in relation to the development of melodic ideas. You talk about an ongoing dedication to collecting phrases and shapes from a variety of sources and practice manipulating them how you see fit. How do you find this approach transitions to the bandstand and how have you continued to develop this principle?
BW: I’m using a technique that I know for a fact other musicians use. I’ve heard that Michael Brecker, Mark Turner, Seamus Blake and to a degree most musicians at some point go through this and have this as part of their life. From day to day they are working on melodic and motivic ideas, cycling it through their instrument, all keys and possibly in a variety of different rhythms and different progressions like up in whole steps, minor thirds or moving in Trane changes.
What I have found is that if you constantly shed countless melodic and motivic shapes through all twelve keys on your horn, for years and years, what you’re actually developing is not this weird library of thousands of licks that you can drop, but actually, developing this muscle that essentially allows you to spontaneously play a shape in a live performance setting and then manipulate it in anyway you see fit. I continue to practice in that way because basically, it’s developing whatever that muscle is: the muscle that allows you to manipulate and move around shapes that you have never played before without practice.
TJG: Can you talk a little about your practice routine? What are the most beneficial approaches to practice for a young musician?
BW: The most beneficial approach is actually imbedded within the question. The word routine. I personally believe that the best way to get good is to have a routine. When I practice, I generally schedule it. I allocate time everyday where nothing else appears, no cell phone, no computer, no phone calls. Then generally I’ll have a methodology where I’ll try and hit all the main aspects of musicianship like: sound, tone, technique, language, transcription, rhythm etc. I’ll methodically go through each field and work on different exercises or aspects of that, I’ll do that every day.
TJG: What three albums are you checking out right now?
BW: Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool.
The Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One (with Clark Terry).
TJG: What three books are on your essential reading list?
BW: I don’t really have any lists like that but there are a few books recently that have spoke to me in terms of routine.
Daily Rituals, Mason Currey. A collection of true stories of artists from all different genre’s and how they worked everyday.
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield. That’s another book along those lines in terms of how you’d create structure as an artist.
What to Listen for in Music, Aaron Copland. That’s an interesting read as it’s his book written for the non-musician, explaining to them what music is about.