Frame should be a mess. It’s an eclectic zigzag of contemporary styles, played in configurations ranging from duo to full sextet, with multireedist (but primarily tenor saxophonist) Ben Wendel rotating between axes and keyboards rotating between players (Gerald Clayton and Tigran Hamasyan on piano, Adam Benjamin on Rhodes). But it all holds brilliantly together through the sheer force of Wendel’s personality. Indeed, there’s little other common ground to the chopsy fusion of “Frame,” the sax-trio funk of “Jean and Renata” and the delicate piano/tenor duet “Con Alma.”
Wendel’s hard but rich saxophone sound and curt, conversational phrasing contribute momentum to rocker “Blocks” (on which he plays soprano) and hard-swinging “Clayland,” and his easy, languorous lyricism adds romance to the slow closer, “Julia.” His bassoon—mostly in overdubbed accompaniment, but as the lead on the minimalist “Backbou”—is more staccato but no less effective thanks to his lush tone. (Wendel also comps himself with melodica on several tunes.)
His bandmates merit praise as well for their versatility and imagination. Guitarist Nir Felder frequently doubles with Wendel on the themes (as do Clayton and Hamasyan), but distinguishes himself with painterly textures such as hard-rock distortion (“Leaving”) and ambient haze (“Blocks”). Bassist Ben Street and drummer Nate Wood are as steady and inventive as they come, especially on the lean tour de force “Jean and Renata.” As Wendel improvises off a single five-note lick, Street and Wood follow him in dead earnest, shifting gears and timbral approaches without ever abandoning their funky vamp. It’s a masterful centerpiece for a very good recording.