Saxophonist Ben Wendel: Touring with Snoop Dogg was a circus
Ben Wendel has earned international success and awards as a performer, composer, producer and even conductor. He is a founding member of the Grammy-nominated jazz-rock group Kneebody in which he plays saxophone, and he is one of the very few well-known bassoonists outside of the classical realm -- a talent that once afforded him the opportunity to perform with Prince.
Despite his entrenchment in the contemporary jazz and instrumental music worlds, Ben finds creative inspiration from not only a childhood steeped in opera, but also Thom Yorke and '90s hip hop. His varied interests have fueled a career that reflects the ever-changing music industry, one today that encourages (and even requires) musicians to morph their skill-set to adapt to different genres and styles.
Case in point, this week Wendel will perform three times in Saint Paul -- with Americana artist Darryl Holter at the Turf Club and Black Dog Cafe, and at Studio Z with a crew of local rising jazz stars. Gimme Noise spoke with Ben from New York about his circuitous path, creative emphases and approaches to unusual collaborations, including a month-long stint touring with Snoop Dogg.
Gimme Noise: You're in town this week to perform with local jazz folks at Studio Z on Thursday, as well as two performances with Twin Cities-bred Americana artist Darryl Holter, whose recent album, Crooked Hearts, you also produced and even features an appearance by local blues legend Willie Murphy.
Ben Wendel: I'm really happy to be working with Daryl. He's a really unique dude. He's from the Twin Cities and he's really lived seven different lives. He used to run one of the big unions in Wisconsin, then he was a history teacher at UCLA. He's a crazy dude and an amazing compendium of music. He received one of the Guthrie writing scholarships. I've been so happy to make albums with him. His last album, just cause he's such a cool guy, I was able to get really amazing players, like one of the drummers for Bob Dylan, the pianist for Lyle Lovett, the steel player for Joni Mitchell. He's really cool, an old West Bank guy.
You've recorded and performed with such a wide range of musicians style-wise: Cuban drumming legend Ignacio Berroa, Meshell Ndegeocello, Daedelus, Prince, Snoop Dogg...Is there a different Ben that you bring to each unique project, or is your approach to collaboration more constant?
I've wondered about that. It's the same Ben, but basically in this era that we live in, the whole game has changed. The record industry has fallen. It's still there and will always be there, but there's no control over categories anymore. The way that people listen to music is so fragmented now. And sure enough, the way that musicians make a living is equally fragmented now. I would never be able to say I'm a jazz musician. I mean, I play the saxophone, I play improvised music, but the truth is, if you looked at the playlist on my phone, it's all over the place. I've got the Atoms for Peace album, I've got the Kendrick Lamar album, the Flying Lotus, I'm not just listening to jazz cause I'm not just playing jazz. And I don't just love jazz, I love all kinds of music. When you end up playing with different people, it's just not that much of a leap, because you not only love their music, but you have a semblance of understanding about it because you've been listening to it.
Meshell Ndegeocello is someone I've been listening to since college; she's one of my heroes. It was unbelieveable to work with her, and we continue to work with her. I just feel like a little kid every time. And Daedelus, I've known since before college. We live in the generation that grew up with electronica; we were there when it actually happened. I was listening to Aphex Twin when he came out. Basically who I am as a musician is a reflection of all the different things that I like.
You play the saxophones, piano, melodica and bassoon...do you have a first love?
I primarily work on the saxophone; that's how I'm mainly known... the side thing of playing instrumental jazz on the bassoon is a very rare, unique thing that few people do, so I'm sort of known for that too, but it really doesn't make up a lot of the activity that I do in a year. And the other instruments, I've always played them, and I do a lot of work outside of the jazz scene, so I'm always moving around, playing keyboards in this band, play melodica with a lot of different electronica artists like Daedelus, and I got to play bassoon with Prince, so all these different instruments have opened up different avenues for me as a musician. My primary way to answer your question would be MUSIC, and these different instruments are just ways to express that love.
Your compositions can be complex, yet there's a consistent attention to melody - is this intentional?
I have all these different musicians in my family. My mom was an opera singer for almost 30 years, and I think, based on how I was raised, listening to a lot of classical and opera growing up, I naturally gravitate towards melody. You're right, they [my compositions] are definitely more complex than a pop song, but they tend to still be more like something you could sing. They have a certain melodic thing, but it's not a conscious thing. I'm not trying to write songs that are conducive to a certain instrument or certain rules, it's just how I hear music, with strongly defined melodies that tend not to be too obtuse.
You just released Small Constructions, an album with pianist Dan Tepfer, another musician that like you, grew up with an opera singer as a mother. In a recent interview you described the way your shared classical backgrounds have helped to create a "flow and logic that seems to have gotten infused in the way we improvise together." Can you expand on this? How is that flow and logic manifested?
This is where you get into the difficulties of trying to describe music with words, and I usually fail. Essentially...there's a certain energetic and aesthetic flow to classical music, that if you're raised in that environment and maybe even played that music, you absorbed some of that flow. Something about absorbing that on a cellular level, it affects how you pace music, how you hear music, how you hear ups and downs, dynamics, when things get louder, softer, thicker, simpler. And something about the fact that we both have a very strong foot in that world speaks to how we play together, even though we are absolutely, primarily both improvising musicians.
So as a kid, you were entrenched in this classical scene and were a bit of a band geek playing in a lot of ensembles. Were you more of a jazz freak as a kid? More of a rocker, or a classical kid? All three?
I had a very weird, disparate thing growing up. I had a LP player and a bunch of classical albums, my mom singing opera around the house. But I grew up in LA and there was this station, a radio station, called KDAY, an AM radio station that played 24 hour, commercially uninterrupted hip hop, during, in my opinion, one of the great eras of hip hop, the '90s... A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, NWA, Snoop. It was just a really great time for hip hop and I was totally obsessed with that stuff. So I listened to that, classical music, and then my neighbor was a crazy jazzophile and he was just giving me tapes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. So that's what I grew up on. The funny thing about that time in our lives - teenagers - is that you don't really tend to have an opinion of what's good or bad, you just listen to everything with no judgement.
So were you a fan, then, when you got the chance to work with Snoop Dogg?
It was insane! I remember being 16 years old, smoking weed in my beat-up Toyota Corolla, listening to The Chronic and just loving it. Then next thing I know I'm playing those same songs WITH Snoop Dogg, and Snoop Dogg is taking giant blunt hits on the stage, blowing them in my face and then asking me to solo and telling the audience to sing "Play that Funky Music White Boy" while I play. The whole thing, you just can't make this shit up. It was out of control. I only toured with him like a month, but I swear to god, I have more hilarious, unbelievable memories than in ten years of jazz touring. It was a circus on the road. I never knew anybody's real name; everybody had nicknames.
What was your nickname?
I was the first white guy in the band, so I was just called White Boy. I was White Boy. Snoop would just come up and say 'Thanks White Boy' and I'd say, 'Thanks Snoop'. I can't even remember all the names. The trumpet player was Smokey Joe...I didn't know anybody's real name.
Can you talk about your experience performing with Prince?
This was a one off, it was the last Tonight Show with Jay Leno. It was supposed to be the last Tonight Show, with Prince as the musical guest and he wanted a band with a woodwind quintet. So I got to play in the woodwind quintet and rehearse with him for two days, then do the recording sessions.
He is totally, in the time we spent together, he is totally the real deal, a total genius. He came in, had us play the arrangement down once, then talked with the arranger and said, move this here, cut that, put these bars over here...then we did it and BOOM. He was totally on this other level...I used to live in LA and would play a bunch at a club that doesn't exist anymore, the Temple Bar. And he would roll in randomly...suddenly there'd be a bunch of Escalades outside and he would come in and watch. You'd be playing and suddenly someone would say "Prince is in the audience" and you'd be like, "Oh shit!"
Your Grammy-nominated band Kneebody is known for exploring the expansive gray space between jazz and rock...often incorporating unusual or obscure covers, pulling from a broad spectrum of genres - Tom Zé, Charles Ives, Judee Sill...how do you guys decide what music to interpret?
In terms of the choices, we naturally gravitate towards picking music that we not only love, but that hasn't been beaten to a pulp. There are so many cover projects, cover bands, cover this and cover that, and it just naturally goes that we're not going to do, oh, Joni Mitchell's "Blue", or Paul Simon. It's too easy and it's been done too much. We're more curious about shedding a little bit of light on people that are lesser known. I mean, Tom Zé, people in music circles might know him, but he's not well-known in a larger sense at all. And Judee Sill is totally a ghost, though I've noticed in the past few years she's finally getting the attention that she deserves. That's the stuff that excites us a little more.
When out in LA last year you recorded at Studio #2 over at the famous Sunset Sounds in Hollywood where many rock legends have recorded. Were you channeling any Jimmy Page during your sessions?
[Laughs] Everybody in the band is just such a huge fan of drum sounds, and Led Zeppelin...I mean, the drum sounds that were achieved on those albums, to this day, are just some of the most badass, ridiculous drums sounds of all time. It's amazing to hear the stories of how those drum sounds were achieved. They'd go into a room and have the assistant walk around with a mic until they found just a perfect sweet spot. And most of the time the were recording the drums with just one or two mics, not like how a lot of folks do it now, where you have fifteen mics. So being in that room, the gear alone is just epic, and the room sounds so beautiful and has such a vibe. I totally believe that spaces absorb the energy of the music that's been performed there. You just feel it.
I'm going take a little bit of a leap, but you know the movie The Shining? It's kinda like that. Places store memories. I don't know if I was channeling Jimmy Page, but I know we had this amazing engineer, Todd Burke, who's recorded Johnny Cash, The Foo Fighters, all these people, and he got these sounds that were just so beautiful and huge and impressive..awesome, sounding old and new at the same time. This hugeness of the Led Zeppelin thing, but it also sounded new. We recorded two albums in that studio in four days. We recorded the next Kneebody album, which is going to come out in the Fall; and, we recorded this project we've been working on for a couple years, which is a collaboration with Kneebody and Daedelus. We've recorded an entire album with him, and it probably will come out in a year, year and half.
It's a rare musician that's managed to develop a presence on both coasts. Can you talk a bit about the difference in the LA versus the NYC jazz scenes?
I think it's becoming less relevant, but there still are marked differences, and a lot of it just has to do with the physicality of the cities. New York has tenfold more venues that cater to jazz than LA and they are all clustered really closely together and are accessible via 24 hour metro system. So it's always going to have an edge in terms of the natural synergy, where people are constantly cross-pollinating and checking each other out. In a single night, I can go listen to three completely different bands in three different clubs. Where in LA, that would be literally impossible. It would be a nightmare. It'd be a forty-five commute to one thing, then another forty minute-plus commute to something else. The sheer size of the city is so much larger, and there's no transit system.
Then there's also that New York is a huge feeder to Europe, which is a huge source of work for a lot of us, so that's still a big difference. However, both cities have a tremendous amount of amazing musicians, and I am noticing a lot more cross-coast pollination happening, a lot more quintessential New York musicians hanging in LA, living there for a few months, going back and forth. There used to be this East Coast-is-better-than-West Coast kinda thing happening, but I've been noticing it disappear.
Ben Wendel performs at Studio Z in Lowertown St. Paul, Thursday, April 11th with Brian Ziemniak, Zacc Harris, Graydon Peterson, and Pete Hennig, along with special guest Brandon Wozniak. Concert will begin at 7pm with a workshop beforehand. All ages welcome.
Ben also performs with Darryl Holter at the Turf Club in St. Paul on Wednesday, April 10th and the Black Dog Café in St. Paul on Friday, April 12th.
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