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Grammy-nominated saxophonist Ben Wendel talks Snoop Dogg and jazz bassoon

Editorial Staff

By Chris Maskell

For Montreal jazz fans, the upcoming weekend presents a rare treat: Brooklyn-based saxophonist Ben Wendel will be joining a band led by local bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc for two nights at the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill. This occasion is doubly notable for the fact that this musical lineup has actually never played together before — and might never again. In light of this, the Grammy-nominated saxophonist took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to CBC Music about topics ranging from Snoop Dogg to jazz bassoon.

Who is Ben Wendel?

Over the past 10 years, Wendel has established himself as a principal character in the modern jazz scene. In this time, he has released 13 albums as a band leader/co-leader, and on top of this, he has worked as a producer for artists including Dave Cook, Dan Tepfer and Darryl Holter.

His biography also boasts an impressive array of other career associations, as he’s appeared on more than 30 recordings as a sideman since 2002. One of his longer-running musical relationships is with pianist Tigran Hamasyan, whom he’s played with for seven years. In fact, Wendel cited the last concert he did with Hamasyan, which took place at the Jazz à la Villette festival in Paris, as being one of his most memorable performances.

Not only has Wendel been rubbing shoulders with a who’s-who of modern jazz, but he’s worked with artists from other genres as well — including Snoop Dogg. He says that although his tour with the rapper only lasted a few months, he “probably [has] more stories from that short time than from decades of jazz touring. It was just an extremely unique experience that I can’t really repeat in print!”

How it all began

Success doesn’t happen overnight, and to help put things in perspective, Wendel described his upbringing. Soon, it became no surprise that he followed his chosen career path.

“I have a lot of classical musicians in my family,” he explained, “as my mom was an opera singer, my great-aunt played piano and went to Juilliard, and my grandmother played flute with Toscanini.”

Born in Vancouver and raised in Los Angeles, Wendel began playing music by taking part in his public school’s orchestra, jazz band and marching band. Here, he split his time between two very different instruments: saxophone and bassoon. According to Wendel, his introduction to the latter happened in a roundabout way.

“We had an orchestra in our high school that needed a second bassoonist. At that time, I wasn’t particularly interested in playing bassoon, and I actually didn’t even really know what the instrument was. However, the orchestra had been invited to Europe to do a bunch of youth festivals, and that’s what I was interested in. I wanted to go with my friends to Europe for the first time in my life. So over the summer, I learned how to play the bassoon, and as it turned out, I actually really loved the instrument.”

This decision would have an enormous impact on his later career. Today, Wendel actively performs on both saxophone and bassoon, which he explains places him in a unique jazz minority.

“Bassoon is extremely uncommon in a jazz context, and I would argue that there are probably only 10 to 20 jazz bassoonists in the world.”

Billy Higgins: 'a master'

The decision to follow music as a career was an easy one for Wendel, as he “fell in love with music pretty early and decided that [he] wanted to pursue that direction more than anything else.” Along the way, he’s had help from many mentors, but none served as important of a role as the legendary jazz drummer Billy Higgins.

“In 1998, I took a year off from school and went home to Los Angeles. During that time, I was lucky enough to be able to play in an all-star youth group that [Higgins] led, but also throughout the course of that year I got to hang at his house and do sessions with him. I would also go to the club that he ran called the World Stage, and there were many nights where he would call me up onto the stage and I would get to play standards with him all night.”

However, Wendel revealed that Higgins’s influence extended beyond simply providing an aspiring saxophonist with valuable experience: “Just through the sheer act of his personality, artistry, and just playing with him, he showed me a lot about the joy of music.”

Wendel also pointed out that through listening to Higgins, he was able to get a taste of what jazz could feel like when it was played by “a master that was coming from the era when it was born.”

'A chance to challenge yourself'

While this weekend’s local rhythm section of LeBlanc, pianist Rafael Zaldivar and drummer Greg Ritchie are familiar faces to us in Montreal, the visiting saxophonist has never played with them before. To some, performing with a group of strangers with only minimal rehearsal might seem like a stressful situation. For jazz musicians of Wendel’s calibre, however, such circumstances are the norm. Cheerfully, he explained the upside.

“It’s a really fun challenge because you don’t get to lean on any kind of personal history [with a group], and you also don’t get to choose who the musicians are in the band. I think it’s a great chance to challenge yourself and see how you do in unknown situations. It’s also just a chance to meet new people and get insight into different scenes around the world.”

To cap things off, Wendel enthusiastically mentioned one of his major musical events on the horizon for 2016: the release of his next album as leader. Coming out on Motema Records, the record teams him with pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Henry Cole. Watch for tour dates in the fall — but until then, don’t miss out the chance to hear him so close to home this weekend.