Live: Ben Wendel Group at Barnsdall Gallery Theater
In a Tuesday night show at Barnsdall Gallery Theater, the young saxophonist stepped away from a set list that served him in rooms such as Café Metropol and the Mint and instead presented the L.A. premiere of an as-yet untitled six-part suite, the end result of earning a New Works Grant from Chamber Music America.
Given that his recent track record on the L.A. scene includes founding the genre-hopping funk-jazz group Kneebody and backing underground laptop adventurer Daedelus, Wendel's ambitious turn toward yet another genre shouldn't come as a surprise. But what was a pleasure to discover is how natural his transition sounded.
Looking like a KCRW-ready singer-songwriter in dark jeans and a snug-fitting jacket, Wendel introduced the 65-minute piece as initially inspired by French Baroque dance forms. And while such talk sounds about as far from jazz tradition as one can get, the end result was lush, evocative and deeply rooted in the genre.
Performing on saxophones, bassoon and the occasional melodica, Wendel was a democratic leader through the intricate and harmonically rich suite, offering plenty of room for his crack, six-piece ensemble to shine.
During a swirling second movement that bore the working title "When Was," mutton-chopped keyboardist Adam Benjamin dived deep into the piece's percolating melody on an effects-heavy Fender Rhodes. He took the composition into wide-open territory that flirted with the most restless tributaries of '70s fusion as well as the more experimental-minded excursions found in modern indie rock.
It was a testament to Wendel's taut arrangement skills that the night never drifted into free-blowing cacophony.
The group seemed to split the difference between generations, with younger players like Benjamin and Thelonious Monk Competition winner Tigran Hamasyan on piano and rock-solid veterans like bassist Darek Oles and guitarist Larry Koonse. An empathetic restraint remained the dominant philosophy for each of the players.
Apart from a fleet-fingered rush through the fourth movement on soprano sax that left him momentarily breathless, much of Wendel's playing offered an understated and evocatively cyclical feel, saving its furthest-reaching explorations for the evening's close.
As if looking to close the night with some fireworks, Wendel's solo on tenor saxophone in the sixth movement swerved through a dramatic series of trills and runs that earned a few "oohs" from the crowd while still preserving the piece's intricate, syncopated backbone.
Working for a young, hoodie-wearing audience consistent with Wendel's current position as adjunct professor of jazz studies at USC, Wendel's elegant compositional shift showed a new aspect of an artist who already was coming into his own with his lovely recent album.
Though Tuesday's piece is still unrecorded, its ephemeral quality captured some of jazz's finest qualities -- it was fresh, ever-evolving and gone as soon as the last note was played. But hopefully not for long.
-- Chris Barton
Photo: Ben Wendel onstage at Barnsdall Gallery Theater by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times