A kaleidoscopic small-band adventure led by one of the world’s great clarinetists, and a superbly-played set by Ben Wendel’s dynamic quintet.
By Steve Elman
It was a New York kind of evening. Despite the hyper-Cantabridgian setting of Sanders Theater, last Saturday night a house of lucky Bay Staters had an out-of-metro experience, thanks to the Celebrity Series of Boston. They heard sixteen top-class jazz musicians based in The City all on the same local stage, under the leadership of two highly-respected reed players taking their turns in the drivers’ seats.
Many of the “backing players” heard at Sanders are, and deserve to be, leaders in their own right. On a different night in Gotham, any of them might be heading a club date and either of the two leaders might be sitting in. In fact, that’s just what’s going to happen in the next few weeks. On March 30, Anat Cohen will be guesting in bassist Martin Wind’s group at Jazz at Kitano, alongside another collection of New York stalwarts – Ingrid Jensen, Gary Versace, Duduku da Fonseca, and Scott Robinson (who, once upon a time, was a Boston regular). And in April, Ben Wendel will join bassist Linda May Han Oh for a week at the Village Vanguard, with Matt Stevens, Fabian Almazan, and Rudy Royston.
The pool of talent in New York and the multiplicity of paying gigs there are among the factors that draw so many Bostonians and temporary Bostonians to leave The Bean behind. The very weight of so many great players in adjacent zip codes is like musical gravity, pulling Berklee and NEC students out of the local orbit and towards the giant planet to the south. Of course, we know many great nights in our own town, when an inspired team of hot improvisers meet up and sparks fly. But nights like that happen more often in New York. ’Twas ever thus, and probably ‘twill ever be.
Nonetheless, we got our slices of The Apple (didja think I would avoid this metaphor?) on March 10 at Sanders, and they were very tasty slices indeed.
Canadian-born tenor player Ben Wendel, who now makes his home in Brooklyn, may not be well-known to us locals under his own name, but some will recognize him as a member of the fusionish band Kneebody, formed with fellow alumni of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. They’ve released ten discs since 2005, including one that was completely built on songs by Charles Ives. Wendel has six more CDs as a leader and dozens as a sideman – including dates with Jason Mraz, Taylor Eigsti, and Gerald Clayton. He’s won awards from ASCAP, Chamber Music America, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Oh yeah, and he’s been nominated for a Grammy.
His current tour is both a re-imagining of Seasons (a cycle of duets he wrote in 2015) and a preview of an upcoming release in which the full cycle will appear on disk for the first time. He saw the original collection of twelve pieces as encounters for himself with twelve musicians he admires and as an homage to Tchaikovsky’s programmatic piano suite with the same name (see More below for the details and a link to hear the duets). Wendel explains how he developed the concept: “Some of the pieces are direct nods to the Tchaikovsky works, be it writing in sonata form, or taking a melodic or harmonic stem and re-contextualizing it in the duo setting. On other pieces, I’ve written contrafacts that relate to the name of the month – for example, the month of April is loosely inspired by the standard ‘I’ll Remember April.’”
For this tour, Wendel has re-arranged some of the Seasons duets for a quintet, including three (and sometimes four) of the original Seasons partners. (Drummer Eric Harland, last seen here as a member of the SF Jazz Collective, was unable to make the Cambridge gig, but Henry Cole sat in for him and drove the band with fervor.)
The set was meticulously rehearsed and superbly played, with pianist Aaron Parks and guitarist Gilad Hekselman featured generously, and bassist Matt Brewer rock-solid throughout. The program included four of the Seasons pieces and two other originals – a bossa called “Tao, “ dedicated to pianist Brad Mehldau, and a 10/8 smoker called “Unforeseeable.”
All of the Seasons pieces they performed are attractive to the ear, with ingenious lines and lots of emotional variety. “October” is especially interesting, with Hekselman getting percussion effects out of his guitar in the intro and then using echoplex for multiple lines a la Bill Frisell. Coincidentally, this was the tune in which the band really caught fire, and their energy went to an even higher level for the finale, Wendel’s “Unforeseeable,” where the group showed how powerful they could be in a tricky time signature and Wendel had his best solo of the night.Wendel himself is a richly versatile tenor saxophonist, with a bright sound that follows in Michael Brecker’s wake – but he is no imitator.Click To Tweet. He has a rounder, broader approach than many of his contemporaries and a cogent imagination that owes something to mid-period Sonny Rollins. He also has complete control of echo effects, which he brought in wisely and atmospherically in “June” and “October.” (He also plays bassoon better than anyone else in jazz, but he left that axe at home.)
The Seasons set certainly was not monochromatic, but it seems a bit of a shame to me that Wendel did not choose to play one of the pieces in its original form. He had three of his partners right there on stage, and a duet would have provided a contemplative moment.
Anat Cohen’s Tentet is almost the antithesis of monochromaticism. It has so much tone color and so much genre variety that it might be typed (unfairly) as a world music band. If you had to type it at all, it would much fairer and more accurate to call it a “universal band.” In addition to the four US-born players, here we have Australian trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis, Brazilian keyboard player Vitor Gonçalves, Albanian composer-cellist Rubin Kodheli, and three Israelis – bassist Tal Mashiach, musical director Oded Lev-Ari, and the leader. Their repertoire is eclectic, too, reflecting Cohen’s fondness for the swing era (specifically, the work of Benny Goodman), Brazilian choro, Klezmer music, and African bailophon (specifically, the work of Malian master Neba Solo).
Without a forceful personality up front, these disparate elements would be almost impossible to meld. But Cohen – vibrant, enthusiastic, dynamic, and supremely confident on stage – is the sun in this solar system. She is in charge from first note to last. This band is a cohesive realization of her musical vision and a testament to her maturity as an artist. Not bad for someone who still is seen as a rising star.
I was fortunate enough to be at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan on April 13, 2016, when this group did its first gig. At the time, I wrote about it for the Fuse as an ensemble with a lot of promise. I wrote then, “It will also be interesting to see if Bar-Levi and Cohen challenge themselves to make the most of this unusual instrumentation, to mix and match the players, to test what they can really do and to push them to stand up to Cohen’s authority as a player.”
The tentet has not just lived up its potential. It has thrived, with the same players I saw two years ago now working together as a committed team, even though Cohen called it a “relatively new band” on stage. (One exception that proved the strength of their commitment: vibraphonist James Shipp was not available for the Sanders show, so Cohen brought in Chris Dingman, who filled that important role with plenty of panache and sounded completely at home.)
Previously I had been impressed by Gonçalves (who doubles on accordion), Noordhuis, drummer Anthony Pinciotti, and guitarist Sheryl Bailey – all of whom sounded even better at Sanders. Gonçalves had a dazzling accordion feature in Egberto Gismonti’s “Loro” and Bailey was especially good on “Trills and Thrills,” with a powerful fuzzy wah-wah solo that turned into a fiery duet with Cohen.
This time out, I heard generous helpings from players who did not solo in the set I saw two years ago. Trombonist Nick Finzer was all over his instrument, handling mutes and plunger like an old swing hand, and ripping off a terrific solo in Cohen’s Klezmer song “Foile-Shtick.” Owen Broder concentrated on baritone sax in Cambridge (although he doubles on bass clarinet), and he had a particularly effective turn in “Kenendougou Foly,” the last tune of the night. Cellist Kodheli was in the background in 2016, partly due to ineffective miking, but his importance is now clear. He provided pizzicato tone color with bassist Mashiach under that Broder solo, added lovely arco to the accordion and guitar in the opening chords of “Loro,” and took a solid turn in the spotlight in “A Mayse” (although it looked like he was reading his solo from a chart).
But who’s kidding whom? This is Anat Cohen’s show. She is now accepted as one of the greatest technicians on her instrument and one of the best ever to play jazz on it. She displays the signal quality of the most assured virtuosi: she never shows off. That formidable technique is only used when she needs to use it to accomplish her artistic goals. But she also possesses the charisma of a born bandleader, that magnetism that forces you to watch her even when someone else is soloing, if only to see if the sideperson’s work is coming up to her standards.
It is now clear that this is also Oded Lev-Ali’s show, although he is the junior partner in the enterprise. He made a brief and unobtrusive entrance to conduct the most complicated part of his composition “Trills and Thrills,” but his hand was everywhere in the band’s music. Only the first and last tunes of the evening – Cohen’s own “Happy Song,” and the bailophon tune, “Kenendougou Foly,” are not Lev-Ali arrangements. He made every other tune sound comfortable at the same time it sounded ingenious. He put trombone, baritone and trumpet over cello as a smoky introduction to Cohen’s “Valsa Para Alice.” His Klezmer trilogy (two Cohen originals surrounding a traditional tune) managed to be perfectly echt and perfectly modern at the same time. His instrumental choices at the start of “Oh, Baby!,” a 1947 tune from the Benny Goodman book, suggested the Goodman quartet plus Charlie Christian, and later on in the same tune he incorporated a quote of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts.”
Of course, there’s always room for improvement, even when a band meets such high standards . . . maybe even because it reaches such high standards. I want to hear a tune where the supporting players really let loose, where we have a sense that anything can happen. Maybe Lev-Ali could use the distinctive sound of this band to rework something from the book of a classic small ensemble, like Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” band. Perhaps most of all, I’d like to hear Cohen acknowledge clarinetists of the swing era other than Benny Goodman. Her chalumeau register begs for a Jimmy Noone tribute, and it would be a treat to hear Lev-Ali try his hand at arranging Earl Hines’s “My Monday Date,” where Noone shines. And where is Ellington? Perhaps only Cohen could do justice to the legacies of both Barney Bigard and Jimmy Hamilton; two very different Ellington clarinetists. I can imagine a medley of the famous Bigard feature “Mood Indigo” and a less-well-known feature for Hamilton, “Bluebird of Delhi.”
But that’s what happens when you hear great performances like the ones at Sanders: you’re just hungry for more.
The Celebrity Series of Boston has three more mouth-watering jazz concerts in its current season:
Next up: Jazzmeia Horn, singing as part of the Stave Sessions series, at 160 Massachusetts Avenue, March 20, 8 p.m. This young singer has chosen a bold path – following in the footsteps of Betty Carter, one of the uncompromising people ever to sing jazz. She has all the tools for greatness: lightning-fast articulation, bell-like pitch, a great sense of repertoire, and the guts to sing her mind. Her debut CD, A Social Call (2017), was one of the most promising for a singer in decades.
In May: Joshua Redman and Brooklyn Rider at Berklee Performance Center, May 19, 8 p.m. This is the second of three eagerly-anticipated concerts, culminating in a show at Town Hall in New York (the first is at Princeton University). Redman, one of the most creative saxophonists in contemporary jazz, will work with a jazz rhythm section (Scott Colley, bass and Satoshi Takeishi, percussion) and the pioneering string quartet Brooklyn Rider, known for their many collaborations with musicians in genres beyond classical.
In June: The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis at Symphony Hall, June 10, 8 p.m.. This year marks the orchestra’s 30th anniversary. The repertoire for the Boston show hasn’t yet been announced, but it will surely include music by Marsalis himself. During their current New York season, the orchestra is programming music by Ellington, Basie, Monk, Ornette Coleman and Mary Lou Williams, so there will be a lot of worthwhile material for them to choose from.
Set lists for Sanders Theater, March 10, 1918:
Ben Wendel Seasons Group:
Ben Wendel, ts
Aaron Parks, p
Gilad Hekselman, el-g
Matt Brewer, b
Henry Cole, dm
- February, from Seasons (Wendel) – written for tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman
- January, from Seasons (Wendel) – written for pianist Taylor Eigsti
- Tao (Wendel) – dedicated to pianist Brad Mehldau
- June, from Seasons (Wendel) – written for vocalist Luciana Souza
- October, from Seasons (Wendel) – written for guitarist Gilad Hekselman
- Unforeseeable (Wendel)
Anat Cohen Tentet:
Anat Cohen, cl
Oded Lev-Ari, musical dir
Nadje Nordhuis, tp / flug
Nick Finzer, tb
Owen Broder, bari
Vitor Gonçalves, p / acc
Sheryl Bailey, el-g
Chris Dingman, vib / per
Rubin Kodheli, cel
Tal Masiach, b
Anthony Pinciotti, dm
1. Happy Song (Cohen)
2: Valsa Para Alice (Cohen, arr. Lev-Ari)
3. Oh, Baby! (Owen Murphy, arr. Mel Power, adapted by Lev-Ari)
4. Anat’s Doina:
a. Mayse (Cohen)
b. Der Gasn Nigun (trad., arr. Lev-Ari)
c. Foile-Shtick (Cohen, arr. Lev-Ari)
5. Loro (Egberto Gismonti, arr. Lev-Ari)
6. Trills and Thrills (Lev-Ari) – conducted by Lev-Ari
7. Kenendougou Foly (Neba Solo, arr. Cohen)
1 – 6 were performed continuously, without any breaks for applause.
All of the music played the Cohen Tentet at the Sanders concert can be found on their recent CD, Happy Song (Anzic, 2017).
Upcoming performance dates for the Ben Wendel Seasons Group
— March 16: Jazz Kitchen, Indianapolis
— March 17: Constellation, Chicago
— March 18: Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts, Winter Park, Florida
— March 19: Opperman Music Hall, Tallahassee, Florida
— June 15: Kennedy Center, Washington
All twelve of the original duet videos of Ben Wendel’s Seasons are viewable and hearable (in excellent recordings) on Wendel’s beautifully-designed website. They are:
— January, with pianist Taylor Eigsti
— February, with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman
— March, with bassist Matt Brewer (Wendel playing bassoon)
— April, with drummer Eric Harland
— May, with pianist Shai Maestro
— June, with singer Luciana Souza
— July, with guitarist Julian Lage
(Lage playing acoustic guitar and Wendel playing bassoon)
— August, with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner
— September, with drummer Jeff Ballard
— October, with Gilad Hekselman (Hekselman playing electric guitar)
— November, with pianist Aaron Parks
— December, with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire
Anat Cohen’s next appearance in the area will be on May 11, when she joins the MIT Festival Ensemble and four other clarinetists (Don Byron, Billy Novick, Evan Ziporyn, and Eran Ergozy) for a Clarinet Summit at Kresge Auditorium, directed by Frederick Harris, Jr. She was supposed to be a “surprise guest artist” for this show, but the cat’s out of the bag – the gig is announced on her website. But her presence merely adds extra shine to what already promises to be a great evening, including Don Byron’s Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble and a world premiere piece featuring all five of the evening’s star soloists
Upcoming performance dates for the Anat Cohen Tentet:
— April 7: American Jazz Museum, Kansas City, Missouri
— April 8: Missouri Center for the Arts Theatre, University of Missouri, Columbia
— April 10: Hettenhausen Center for the Arts, McKendree University, Lebanon, Illinois
— April 11: Kennedy Union Ballroom, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio
— June 23: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, Florida
— January 12, 2019: Zenkel Hall, New York City
In addition to the above, Cohen has a very active tour schedule in other contexts, including a series of duet dates with pianist Fred Hersch over the next week in California, Idaho, and Washington. The schedule page on her website will help you keep up.
Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.