In 1876, Tchaikovsky wrote a piano piece for each month of the year and called the collection The Seasons. In homage, saxophonist/composer Ben Wendel unfurled one of his own dozen songs every month in 2015, each dedicated to a musician he admired who was then called upon to join him for a duet rendition. The resulting monthly video series amounted to an intimate, thrilling compendium of music. In March 2018, Wendel used an upcoming gig at the Village Vanguard to recruit four of those duet partners—drummer Eric Harland, bassist Matt Brewer, pianist Aaron Parks, and guitarist Gilad Hekselman—for three days of workshopping and recording to create this quintet version of The Seasons. It deserves to be taken on its own terms, mostly because it suffers only by comparison to those video duets.
Wendel’s writing has a playful sophistication easily wielded in a duo setting. The top-notch quintet on The Seasons necessarily opts for aggressive nuance, with exacting decisions about layering or laying out amid the melodies and ensuing solos. In this way, the saxophone shadowboxing between Wendel and Joshua Redman on “February” in 2015 erupts into a torrid but neatly arced fusion romp in the 2018 quintet version. By contrast, the quietude of Wendel’s bassoon and Brewer’s bass in duet remains at the core of the quintet interplay. And “November” retains its contemplative ambience from the original Wendel-Parks exchange of 2015 before the wistful blues billows outward with organic ease. That sunny uplift is especially apparent on The Seasons’ rendition of “July” (originally a Wendel duet with Julian Lage), which has a beguiling sway like a branch heavy with fruit, nudged by the force of Harland’s rapid beats as Parks, Hekselman, and Wendel each offer luxuriating solos.