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A Great Week in Cleveland, Part 1: Ben Wendel and Joel Ross

Ben Wendel Credit Anouk van Kalmthout
photocredit Anouk van Kalmthout

When I moved to Cleveland in late 2019, I was eager to plunge full-time into a jazz scene that looked like New York’s to me. That notion might be laughable to longtime citizens of The Land, but from the jazz desert of Erie, Pennsylvania, that’s how Cleveland looked to me. Consider this ten-day period in Sept. 2019 when Bop Stop presented a cavalcade of stars that would make even the most hardened New York booker bow in respect and awe.

Even with stars in my eyes I knew that such intervals are few and far between. But every rule needs an exception as proof, and one has arrived this week where in the course of three nights, Cleveland will host concerts by the brilliant tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel, vibes wizard Joel Ross and the mesmerizing poet, community activist and truth-teller Moor Mother.

This being the Great Lakes where the promise of spring is routinely crushed by an April snowstorm, we seldom get everything we want, so of course the concerts by Ross and Moor Mother are both scheduled for Friday evening.

We’ll deal with the latter in the usual Tuesday post, but the Ben Wendel show can’t wait.—it’s Wednesday night at Bop Stop and it’s going to be a good one.

Ben Wendel at Bop Stop, March 22

On his forthcoming Edition Records release All One, Ben Wendel presents six outstanding guest soloists in settings where he wrote all the arrangements and played and recorded all the backing parts. Clearly, the saxophonist and composer, who will perform with a quartet at Bop Stop Wednesday, loves a challenge.

“You know, my wife is always encouraging me to maybe challenge myself a little bit less, but yeah, I think there’s always been this drive,” he said on a video call last week from his New York home, but quickly added, “I think I really thrive with collaboration.”

All One is just the latest evidence that the 46-year-old Canadian-born musician can do both. On the recording, vocalists Cécile McLorin Salvant and José James, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Tigran Hamasyan and flutist Elena Pinderhughes are framed in complex arrangements played by Wendel on overdubbed soprano and tenor saxophones and bassoons to which he added effects.

“Trying to make a tenor and bassoon ensemble sound interesting for six tracks with six different soloists was such an interesting challenge,” he said. “I had to develop techniques to make it sound as though the orchestra was not a single person playing it. I was glad that the magic trick worked, which is that if you don’t explain that component of the album, it might just sound as though it was a typical ensemble that played it, 30 individuals.”

Mission accomplished. Wendel’s overdubbed reeds lay down a rich blanket of deep maroon velvet for his soloists. Despite the limited tonal palette of his instruments, Wendel’s arrangements are marvelously varied: piquantly chromatic for James’ take on “Tenderly” and pastoral for Frisell’s Americana-tinged feature “Throughout.”

But magic can only go so far, a fact that Wendel acknowledges. “This album is not really a tourable album, because I can’t obviously, create 30 of myself, although I’m sure one day that’s going to be possible. But it’s been really fun to take some of these tunes and actually arrange them and adapt them to quartet format.”

It helps that in pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Harish Raghavan and powerhouse drummer Nate Wood, Wendel has colleagues who understand his vision. “This quartet that I’m bringing on the road through the Midwest I jokingly called the Old Friends Quartet,” Wendel said, “because we have a ton of history, a lot of layers of touring, recording, and playing together and it feels great. So in spite of all of the desire to challenge myself and to play with new people, I also very much enjoy playing with people that I have a long history with. And that definitely shows in this quartet. it’s a real band sound.”

It’s a rangy, muscular sound that Bop Stop regulars might recall from the two shows, the last of them just weeks before the 2020 lockdown, played by Kneebody, the cooperative quartet that includes Wendel and Wood. That band essentially formed in Los Angeles, the city where Wendel grew up and to which he often returns.

“If you’re the type of artist that thrives on having space, space to think, space to imagine, space to dream, and you have the drive to create that world, then LA is a really great fit,” Wendel said. “New York is the opposite kind of feeling, which is that you grow through the pressures of everything coming at you. I recognized with my personality and my development that I would not have done well in New York if I had gone there directly after college,” Wendel said. “I somehow intuitively recognized that I needed to go back to LA and have that space to develop more and it kind of worked out.”

Yet Wendel is not the kind of artist who is content to sit back and relax. “Seeking challenges with each project, that’s the best way to grow. At least personally, that’s my view of the artist path, which is that I don’t ever want to stop growing.”

Ben Wendel Wed., March 22, 7 p.m. at BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Ave. Cleveland. $25 available here.


Joel Ross at Tri-C, March 24

It takes a lot to stand out in a band that included Miguel Zenón, Aaron Parks  and Kendrick Scott but that’s just what Joel Ross  did when he appeared as a pinch-hitter with the Jazz Gallery All-Stars at Cleveland’s Tri-C Auditorium last March. That was my first live encounter with the extravagantly talented vibraphonist (I gushed about it here), but the big news is that Ross will return to the scene of that triumph on Friday.

Joel RossRoss, born in 1995, is part of an extraordinary cohort of young players, including Sasha Berliner, Patricia Brennan and Chien Chien Lu, who have recently brought new approaches that have redefined the role of the instrument in creative music. Even in this fast company, Ross was named Mallet Percussionist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association in each of the last three years.

With his effortless musicality and dazzling technique Ross would be command attention in any setting, but the Chicago native seems driven to play in every setting possible. In his 2020 New York Times profile, Gio Russonello wrote “If you went out enough, you would inevitably walk into a club and find the vibraphonist Joel Ross onstage, playing in yet another musician’s band.”

That spirit of community is documented on recent recordings by Kassa Overall and Makaya McCravem, two of the most innovative drummers and beat scientists working today, as well as releases by fellow Chicagoan Marquis Hill, a trumpeter who burned down the 2021 Tri-C JazzFest, Raghavan and the In Common collaborative of saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens.

That’s just last year’s list and it doesn’t even include Ross’ own The Parable of the Poet, his third for the storied Blue Note label and a critical favorite. It’s a thoughtful, textured and deeply devotional work in which Ross abandons ego for the satisfactions of group interplay and shared vision.

A parable? Maybe, but one delivered with the heart-stopping insight of a true poet.

Joel Ross’ Good Vibes Fri., March 24, 7:30 p.m., Tri-C Metro Campus Auditorium, 2900 Community College Ave. Cleveland. $25 available here.

Information for this section came from Jim Szabo’s essential, weekly Northeast Ohio jazz calendar , NEO’s most complete list of jazz and jazz-adjacent events.

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