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Ben Wendel finds meaning in the Vanguard

Ben Wendel Option 5 (Credit Dave Stapleton).jpg
Dave Stapleton
Ben Wendel

Jazz musicians prepare themselves to play at the highest level any time, anywhere. And yet, there are some spaces that are simply sacred, or at least a little extra special. The Village Vanguard is considered among many musicians and listeners to have a kind of magic in it. 

For saxophonist Ben Wendel, who played there this week, part of that magic starts with the way time seems to operate in the subterranean space. 

Speaking on the phone on Thursday, he said, “It feels like this incredibly dense, intense, long week. But at the same time you blink and it’s done. It’s really otherworldly, but it is typical - like, as the band settles in throughout the week, time gets stretched.”

Wendel was joined at the Village Vanguard this week by a quintet that includes his longtime musical partner Nate Wood on drums, Harish Raghavan on bass, Gilad Hekselman & Nir Felder on guitar (they split the week between them) and Larry Goldings on piano. 

On Wednesday night the group played a set of Ben’s originals that included a new number, tentatively titled “Sco Vibes” - a clear tribute to John Scofield, with whom Goldings worked for years. 

“Larry’s a personal hero,” said Ben. “The generational thing is so interesting.... You just don’t see age in music. You just see the musician.”

While age may just be a number, there is something clearly modern about Wendel’s conception. He incorporates electronics into his sound, using pedals more commonly associated with the guitar, and even the compositional and rhythmic approach borrows from the music of his generation. 

As he sees it, “There’s sort of a feel and a tempo and a complexity to each generation that they bring into it, so it’s almost like the sounds that we emulate now are more reflective of that.”

For Ben Wendel, responding to the music of his generation is very much in keeping with both the jazz philosophy, and the history of the Village Vanguard.

Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.