Seasonal Organic Music by Ben Wendel, Bob James, Miho Hazama and More, in Take Five

Aug 27, 2018

Ben Wendel, “August”

A few years ago saxophonist Ben Wendel embarked on a project called “The Seasons” — a suite of original compositions for a dozen duet partners, one for each month of the year.

Partly inspired by a work of the same name by Tchaikovsky, it took shape as an online video series, and highlighted Wendel’s relationships with some of the leading musicians on the scene. It also coalesced — gradually, over the course of 2015 — into a coherent, balanced whole. (It was one of my Top 10 albums that year.) And Wendel wasn’t quite done with this body of music. In some ways he was only just beginning.

Once the full series was up, Wendel convened a handful of his collaborators — drummer Eric Harland, pianist Aaron Parks, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, bassist Matt Brewer — and formed a band. Earlier this year I saw this group at the Village Vanguard, where the music conveyed a thrilling sense of ecstatic communion. It seemed inevitable that this band would release a proper album.

Also titled The Seasons, it’s due out on Motéma on Oct. 12. Wendel has just shared two tracks from the album, including “August,” which he originally wrote with Mark Turner in mind. On the album, the piece’s rippling arpeggios are smoothly handled by Parks and Hekselman, as Wendel plays long tones, accentuating the shape of the melodic line. You hear his affinities not only with Turner but also a tenor titan like Michael Brecker, especially in the thick of his solo, which begins about three minutes in.

Bob James, “Mojito Ride”

When most jazz listeners think of Bob James, it’s as a crossover pioneer: the pianist who won Grammys for his work with David Sanborn and Earl Klugh; the composer of instrumental hits like the theme for Taxi; a favored sample source for hip-hop artists like Slick Rick and De La Soul; a longtime member of Fourplay, one of the sturdier vessels in the commercial format we used to call smooth jazz.

But James, who spent some of his early career with Sarah Vaughan, has always maintained his ties to small-group jazz. On Espresso, which will release this Friday on the evosound label, he steps out with a trio featuring bassist Michael Palazzolo and drummer Billy Kilson. The album covers a non-purist range of style — it includes a new version of “Mister Magic,” which he recorded with Grover Washington, Jr. — but at its core is the interplay of an acoustic trio. An original called “Mojito Ride” captures the breezy dynamic of the group, with a strong hint of Dave Brubeck and a light flutter of synthesizers.  

Miho Hazama & Metropole Orkest Big Band, “Thelonious”

Last year, as part of a worldwide centennial celebration for Thelonious Monk, composer-arranger Miho Hazama went to the Netherlands for a collaboration with the Metropole Orkest. Her arrangements of Monk’s music, drawing particular inspiration from his solo piano recordings, prove a natural fit for the band, as you can hear on The Monk: Live at Bimhuis, which arrives on Sunnyside this Friday.


One of the most dynamic tracks on the album is “Thelonious,” which opens the set. What sounds at first like an orchestral tune-up is soon revealed to be the theme itself, with baritone and tenor saxophones setting up the form. The rhythm section comes in swinging, and the melody pinballs around between sections of the band. (Later there comes a surprising interpolation of two-stepping New Orleans rhythm.) Hazama is working thoughtfully here, but this never sounds like an academic exercise; these musicians are having a blast.

Arianna Neikrug, “The Song is You”

Changes, just out on Concord Jazz, is the debut album by Arianna Neikrug, a vocalist of bright, solicitous assurance. Produced by Laurence Hobgood, who served for many years as musical director for Kurt Elling, it’s a mixed program of pop-soul standards (Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”) and songbook fare (“Devil May Care”). Neikrug won first prize at the 2015 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, but she wears her expertise lightly; she isn’t a pyrotechnic stylist, and her approach feels as carefully balanced as a summer cocktail.

One high point of the album is a brisk arrangement of “The Song is You,” which sends Hobgood’s trio, with bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jared Schonig, into a series of wind sprints. Neikrug navigates this breakneck tempo with characteristic cool, phrasing in stop-start syncopations and billowy drifts. (Don’t miss the clever nod to “Giant Steps” in the arrangement, a Hobgood flourish that she neatly underlines.)

William Parker’s In Order to Survive, “Criminals in the White House”

William Parker, the tirelessly creative bassist, composer and bandleader, is now in his mid-60s, and at the top of his game. Earlier this month, David Hajdu published an article in The Nation that framed Parker’s recent output as “a late-career bloom,” looking in particular at the recent triple album Voices Fall From the Sky. This week, on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Parker will set up shop at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with an expanded version of his longtime ensemble In Order to Survive: trombonist Steve Swell, saxophonists James Brandon Lewis and Rob Brown, drummer Hamid Drake, multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore. The gig will be well worth your time; as a teaser, here is some live footage of the band at The Stone, performing a muscular piece whose title requires no further comment.