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September 2008

Ben Wolfe
No Strangers Here
MaxJazz

“This is the record I always wanted to make,” states bassist Ben Wolfe in the liner notes to No Strangers Here, an album that rewards repeat listenings with its imaginative pairing of jazz and string quartets.

Wolfe, who established his bona fides in a variety settings—collaborating with Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr. and Diana Krall, among others—is not only working with close friends on this session, as the album’s title suggests, he’s composed and arranged 10 pieces that consistently allow his collaborators to shine. That’s true whether the mood blends film noir and postbop traditions, as when trumpeter Terell Stafford, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and pianist Luis Perdomo emerge from the shadows on “The Minnick Rule,” or when it evokes something as lushly romantic as the album’s title track, with its dreamy swirl of sax and strings. By the time Branford Marsalis turns up on the third track “Milo,” a tunefully engaging showcase for his soprano sax, listeners can relax: Wolfe’s fondness for strings isn’t going to produce clutter or seams.

The best from Marsalis, however, is yet to come. His tenor is the driving force on “The Filth,” another noir-ish excursion underpinned by Wolfe’s deep tone and one that’s ultimately stamped by Marsalis’ dramatic improvisation. Drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, Marsalis’ longtime collaborator, also makes a welcome appearance, smoothly propelling and vibrantly punctuating “Circus.” Otherwise, though, Wolfe finds an inspired drum partner in Greg Hutchinson, who provides almost as much textural as rhythmic support.

Originally published in September 2008
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