Ben Wendel’s mother sang opera professionally for nearly 25 years. The saxophonist has toured with Snoop Dogg, is a huge fan of electronica and is best known for his membership in Kneebody, an eclectic quintet that grooves forth with its own slanted and enchanted flavor of jazz-rock. So when Wendel explains that the title of What We Bring “refers to the experience, inspiration and shared wisdom that musicians collect and absorb throughout their lives,” it feels like code for “anything goes.”
The curveball is that What We Bring may be the most accessible record Wendel has ever made for straight-ahead jazz buffs. In Gerald Clayton (piano), Joe Sanders (bass) and Henry Cole (drums), he has recruited seasoned and resourceful stylists accustomed to enabling the postbop projects of headstrong leaders. They fulfill his desire to create an emotional kinship with melodic songs he cherishes. “Amian” doesn’t cover, or even interpolate, Coltrane’s “Naima,” but contains the ingredients to vividly evoke its warm, spacious calm, just as “Song Song” is inspired by and captures the hypnotic grace of Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana.” By contrast, an actual cover of “Solar” puts forth a brighter flare than Miles Davis’ indelible original, with Wendel’s antsy tenor replacing Miles’ muted trumpet.
Two other songs on What We Bring expand on the monthly duets that comprised Wendel’s fascinating, Tchaikovsky-inspired The Seasons project of 2015. “Fall” features funky accents and choppy beats from Sanders and Cole in a manner that transforms the original “November” duet between Wendel and pianist Aaron Parks. And “Spring” is even more chamber-hued and classically oriented than the “January” duet between Wendel and pianist Taylor Eigsti. Add in a faithful cover of the wonderfully melodic Wye Oak ballad “Doubt,” and the somber eulogy for the late Austin Peralta, entitled simply “Austin,” and you have a bounty of interactive yet reverently beautiful music. It falls to “Soli” to carry the complex jazz-rock and splashy verve that Kneebody fans have come to expect.