“And I thought New York was cold!”
The audience laughed as saxophonist Ben Wendel bantered into the mic while his ‘Seasons Band’ got situated in the Parkway’s newly renovated theater on a cold, blustery February evening. That evening, Ben Wendel had arrived with a group composed of some of the hottest names in the current jazz world to perform music from the recently released album ‘The Seasons’. The album, which began as YouTube videos of 12 duets- one for each month- composed by Wendel for 12 different collaborators, consists of the 12 compositions reimagined for a hard hitting quintet consisting of the saxophonist, Matt Brewer (bass), Aaron Parks (piano), Gilad Hekselman (guitar) and Eric Harland (drums).
Before the concert and during the intermission, Wendel and his cohorts were in the lobby selling merch and getting drinks, which is something I enjoyed that you don’t always see. My girlfriend and I were fortunate enough to get seats in the second row, and the lights dimmed around 8 pm as we sipped our beers, anticipating a phenomenal night of music.
The show opened with ‘February’, and bouncing, syncopated homage to the current month. The thing I noticed right off the bat was not only how much the musicians onstage were subtly communicating with each other, but how much they were laughing, smiling and reacting to each others solos with a shake of the head here and an audible “woah!” there. I always find it easier to enjoy a show when the musicians putting it on are clearly enjoying themselves. They followed ‘February’ with ‘November’ and then ‘October’, which opened with a short guitar solo by Hekselman, and provided Matt Brewer with a pointillistic ostinato to lay down an inspiring bass solo over.
Save for Eric Harland, every musician onstage had a set of pedals they would use to alter the tone of their instruments in interesting ways. At a few points, Wendel would remove the mic from his saxophone and sing into it, manipulating the notes with his pedal to add delay and harmonizing notes to his voice (and to his sax when he had the mic attached). Sometimes musicians will use effects as a crutch to mask mediocre playing, but the musicians onstage used the effects so tastefully and uniquely to accentuate their playing and not cover it up.
After a short (40 minute) break, the band returned to the stage to play one last short set. The second set opened with ‘January’, ‘Tao’ (a piece not on the Seasons album, but one Wendel wrote for piano virtuoso Brad Mehldau), September, March (a tune originally written for bassoon and bass) and finally closing with Song Song, another tune not from Seasons, but one that Wendel wrote for jazz piano legend Ahmad Jamal.
I left the show feeling happy, and fulfilled. The musicians onstage had succeeded to providing a night of jazz that was accessible to everyone. Too often, jazz musicians perform for the benefit of other jazz musician who they know will be able to appreciate their vocabulary, harmonic language and music theory knowledge. What, in fact, is harder than that, is playing a jazz show that can engage the “jazz heads” as well as the “jazz-illiterate”. The Seasons Band succeeded in this, playing melodies and solos that not only demonstrated their virtuosity, but spun intricate melodic paths through the cold February air that left every single person in the audience bobbing their heads and drinking in every note.