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Ben Wendel: High Heart (Edition)

Review of the saxophonist and composer's latest album, featuring vocalist Michael Mayo

Cover of Ben Wendel album High Heart
Cover of Ben Wendel album High Heart

The new album by saxophonist Ben Wendel feels at times less like a jazz record and more like a collection of prayers. Without words or even scat syllables, vocalist Michael Mayo offers melodies of warmth and beauty that invite any listener to offer their own intentions; the opening of the title track alone feels like the vocal equivalent of an angelic hug. Intentional or not, it’s quite the soothing balm after an abhorrent 2020.

After spending his last couple of records exploring The Seasons with his own group and dense yet enchantingly fluid electronica-jazz with Kneebody, Wendel leans into a more tech-heavy atmosphere than ever here, calling on keyboardists Shai Maestro and Gerald Clayton to create the kinetic canvas on which he and Mayo paint. Mayo’s voice, which delivers some of the most haunting wordless vocals (especially on “Less”) since Clare Torry conjured the specter of death on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” is transformed by reverb and electronic textures, bringing fullness to melody and harmony, and causing a symphony of overtones. Just listen to the melody of “Kindly” that Mayo and Wendel mirror and how it expands the whole sonic range of the tune. The interplay between the full-bodied, enveloping thrust of the two lead voices and the intricate, Escher-ian weave of the rhythm section (bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Nate Wood) serves to heighten the brilliance of both. It’s a great direction for Wendel’s style of composition.

The album ends with another prayer from Mayo, the dreamy wandering of “Traveler.” It suggests even further journeys for this group to embark on, even as it offers a place of rest to all us weary.

Learn more about High Heart on Amazon!

Originally Published

Jackson Sinnenberg

Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. He serves as an editor for Capitalbop, a non-profit that focuses on presenting live jazz and covering the D.C. jazz scene through grassroots journalism. He’s covered the city’s local jazz scene since 2015 but has covered national and international jazz, rock and pop artists for a variety of publications. He will gladly argue why Kendrick Lamar is a jazz musician. Follow him @sinnenbergmusic.