Music of the month

My fantasy gift, the one I never get but really want, is a subscription to Sock Club. Every month you receive a new pair of socks in the mail. And these aren’t just any ol’ socks. They’re top-quality, colorful, and American-made. I imagine that after your first pair arrives in January, you spend the next 30 days looking forward to your February socks. Opening the package, awing over the pattern, slipping them on your feet, and walking around town in a pair of unusually jaunty socks.

Fruit-of-the-month, though not as exuberant, also delivers monthly anticipation. And this is important, having something to look forward to. Even something as seemingly simple as a grapefruit or a pair of socks.

Musician Ben Wendel is serving up his dish of monthly delight with his jazz suite-in-the-making, The Seasons. Every month, Wendel releases a new jazz composition via video featuring himself and an artist who has influenced him.

The inspiration for this project is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who composed a suite of 12 piano pieces, also entitled The Seasons. In 1875, Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, the editor of a music magazine, hired Tchaikovsky to write the pieces, one for each month, and they were released through the magazine.

Tchaikovsky wrote some amazing piano music. His Piano Concerto No. 1 is a knockout. But The Seasons doesn’t always give you his best. The “June” Barcarolle is probably the most popular, and Rachmaninoff often used “November” for his encore, but I recommend giving “July” and “August” a listen. These two are pretty spectacular. You can find a recording of Lang Lang performing the whole Suite on Youtube, audience coughs and throat-clearing included.

Wendel, a saxophonist from Canada who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Brooklyn, takes from Tchaikovsky the title and the song-a-month idea. The rest is all Wendel and pure magic. If you’re new to jazz and want a Pu Pu platter of bite-sized delicacies to get you started, Wendel’s The Seasons is just right. Nine months of music are posted on his website, and each piece provides a different jazz experience. But each one, when it ends, will have you thinking, “Let’s hear that again.”

You can listen to The Seasons on Wendel’s Youtube channel, but if you skip watching the videos, you’re missing something amazing. One brilliant aspect of Wendel’s project is that it’s not just about great music. It’s also about friendship, collaboration, the uniqueness of each artist, and the influence of the performance space. Wendel’s videos remind us that jazz doesn’t emerge from a void. It’s living, changing, a product of people and place, and how you experience it depends on the moment in time.

Go to his website, watch the videos and read about the collaboration that produced each piece.

Here’s what Wendel had to say about working with pianist Shai Maestro on “May“:

One of the great by-products of this project has been the growth and learning I’ve experienced while hearing each musician interpret the music.  By the time we recorded the duet, Shai had been working on this 9/8 rhythm from many different angles, and ended up teaching me new ways to interpret it even though I had written the piece.  To me, this is musical collaboration at its best– one where the exchange of ideas and inspiration is circular.

Yep, 9/8 time. You can’t not move to this one.

A few other highlights:  “March” with Wendel on the bassoon and Matt Brewer on bass. For me, the opening melody evokes Fauré, but the movement in the bass keeps the piece surprising. Another standout is “April” with drummer Eric Harland. Classic jazz that transports you to a smoky New York basement club. Pour a gin martini for this one.

Finally, my favorite. “July” with Julian Lage on the guitar and Wendel back on the bassoon, playing together in Lage’s apartment. Soulful. Lovely. This is the soundtrack to a perfect day.

Check Wendel’s website at the end of October to find “October.” And “November” and “December” are also yet to come. That’s 3 more months of great music to look forward to.

Listen to NPR’s story on Ben Wendel’s The Seasons.


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