Ben Wendel is a Grammy nominated saxophonist, composer and producer currently living in Brooklyn, NY. He has played and worked with a wide array of musicians in and outside of the jazz world including Tigran Hamasyan, Antonio Sanchez, Gerald Clayton, Julian Lage, Ambrose Akinmusire, Moonchild, Louis Cole, Daedelus, So Percussion, Snoop Dogg and the artist formerly known as Prince. Ben is a founding member of the Grammy nominated group Kneebody.
Here's our chat with Ben:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
I am very happy with my most recent release called High Heart. It is the closest I have gotten to sounding like myself - the composing, the playing, the mix - it is a lifelong journey of course! The musicians on this album are some of the best in the world and I am grateful they brought their energy, dedication and identities to this project - they lifted the music beyond the written score.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?
I would say I always have my producer hat on, whether playing as a sideman, leader, composer, etc. I'm always looking at the big picture - the macro view - and thinking about how I can best serve the music.
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
I was raised in a musical family. My mother was an opera singer for nearly 25 years, my great aunt went to Juilliard on piano and my grandmother played flute under Toscanini in a youth orchestra. Growing up, I mostly listened to symphonic music I found in the house, hip-hop on the radio (there was a 24 hour AM station in Los Angeles called KDAY) and jazz records that my neighbor gave me. I played saxophone in the Wind Ensemble and Marching Band, and eventually bassoon in the Orchestra. Even though I ended up primarily in the world of improvised music, these other influences I initially experienced set a certain direction and tone for me. To this day, it remains an important part of how I play and envision music, affecting everything from practicing approach and technique to sound production and composing.
Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
First and foremost my peers - my friends - they are the ones that continue to influence me the most. If I think about mentors or gurus, I would add the great drummer Billy Higgins to the list. I had the chance to play and hang with him for a year when I was 21 and he taught me so much about the beauty of music just by being himself. More recently I would include Tom Sewell on that list. Tom is a multi-disciplinary artist who lives in Maui - I ended up getting "stuck" in Maui during the pandemic with my wife and learned a lot from seeing how Tom lived his life from day to day. A true artist path full of joy.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
Too many to list! What has changed is I now see "things not working out" as "a different opportunity will present itself" - just a shift in perspective. I believe in just working hard and loving what you do and the rest takes care of itself. Every artist hits roadblocks and feels uninspired - just knowing this is a universally shared part of the process allows me to lean into it and not worry so much.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
I have a portable rig that fits in one medium size suitcase. It has a four channel DAW, two ribbon mics, my EFX pedals, two 4k cameras and a midi keyboard. It has everything I need to create, compose, mix and record.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
The one common thread I see between all musicians that have "made it" is an undying love/obsession with art, creation, performance and most importantly, learning. It's really a life path - I think of musicians like monks, who pursue enlightenment through their vocation. If you love it and you never stop growing, the rest will come.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
I've been working with headphones for the last two decades as a producer and musician. I like to toggle between high-end gear and low-end gear to see how mixes translate.
The LCD-1's are absolutely fabulous. The sonics are very inviting and there are no over-hyped frequencies. There is no sonic fatigue and I'm able to use these for many hours without burning out. They strike a beautiful balance between clarity and warmth, and will be fantastic for mixing on the road.