The Village Vanguard in New York’s West Village is a sacred space in the jazz world. Tonight, four world-class musicians of the Ben Wendel Quartet honored a stage home to the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Carmen McRae, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, to name a few. For every artist who comes here, there are great shoes to fill, and there are high expectations for the foot-tapping audience hungry for a groove and fireworks.
Expectations were met and more. We were transfixed as these members of the jazz fraternity hit the first chord with a groove and elan. With the first note of Wendel’s composition February, it was clear that tonight was a celebration of creativity, virtuosity, and incredible solos of improvisational artistry. We experienced a range of frenetic power, driving, and angular energy. Several others of Wendel’s compositions followed, like Simple Song, Lou, an Untitled new work, and Tao. They finished with Song Song by Brad Mehldau.
Wendel possesses tremendous energy, mirrored by his band that interacted seamlessly. Linda May Han Oh was in the groove immediately as she drove solid bass lines of rich color and variety on the full range of her instrument. Drummer Obed Calvaire kept it fresh with incredible rhythmic colors that, if you didn’t see him, you might think two people were playing. Pianist Gerald Clayton supported Wendel and built on Oh’s bass offerings to provide a rich, freely chromatic accompaniment to Wendel’s elegant musings. Clayton’s solos were just right for the venue and stayed as fresh as all the quartet put forth. His extended introduction to the laid-back groove of Song Song was smooth and sophisticated.
Wendel’s songs are strikingly original, expressive, and extraordinarily inventive. His ideas and improvisations are freely chromatic, virtuosic, and organic, and he employed subtle be-bop idioms when it suited him. His facility is so commanding that he regularly reaches into the stratosphere of the tenor saxophone’s extended range. Notably, he can express ideas with the restraint of Lester Young while employing the pyrotechnics of Charlie Parker.
These cats were intensely focused on playing music that evolved quickly over complex structures. There was perhaps an urgent beauty. Players thought at high speed versus falling into regular patterns; powerful fresh creativity separated these great artists from lesser folk. Thelonious Monk once explained to a young trumpet player that solos are best when the solo emanates from the melody, not just chord changes. Years later, drummer Joe Morello echoed that concept to me as he explained that the moment a soloist, including drummers, forgets the melody, everyone else knows it, and the music becomes mechanical and falls flat. Morello thought that his early years of studying violin helped form his idea of a song’s melody driving the aural imagination of improvisation. Tonight’s epic creative energy might best be described as Le Jazz Hot, as attributed to the eponymous French publication that intellectualized jazz journalism.
Ben Wendel Quartet
Ben Wendel, Tenor Saxophone
Gerald Clayton, Piano
Linda May Han Oh, Bass
Obed Calvaire, Drums
The Village Vanguard
178 7th Ave. South
New York NJ 10014