WWBW: How old were you when you started playing?
SE: I was nine years old when I started lessons.
WWBW: Was there a viable band program where you were? It was Denver, right?
SE: Yes, Denver. It was pretty solid. I had some good teachers along the way for sure. It was not like a super thriving music program but it was still there in elementary school. I studied with my dad mostly. He’s a professional trumpet player.
WWBW: Okay, so you’re early musical development was driven from home.
SE: For sure. My mom played in the symphony in Colorado for almost 40 years.
WWBW: What was her instrument?
SE: She was a flute player. She was a principal flute player in Denver for a long time and then yeah, my dad. I also have some uncles and aunts that play in symphonies. A lot of musicians in the family. Higher number than usual, I think.
WWBW: They were all classical musicians?
SE: Yeah, pretty much every one of them are classical musicians. I’m one of the only …one of my uncles played some jazz. He'll play big band gigs and he does some improvising, but yeah, mostly all classical musicians.
WWBW: And when you started to take that left turn, was there any, “Oh, what’s happened to our boy?”
SE: Yeah, kind of. Well, my dad always had a big record collection, which is nice so as I got interested in music, I started nosing around down there.
WWBW: And that collection included jazz and other music?
SE: Yeah, he had a huge collection and he got anything trumpet, like any record with a trumpet player on it, he would just buy something and he was always a real avid collector that way.
So he had all kinds of Miles and Clifford Brown. There was some Clifford Brown, Max Roach stuff that I pulled out. That was some of the first be-bop style jazz that I heard. He would listen to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman and stuff like that would be on, but not much past 1940.
I kind of dug through the collection and found some Clifford. My cousin gave me Blue Train. That’s like still one of my favorites and definitely a formative record for me that was like oh, I want to play jazz like the way Lee Morgan sounds on that record. I was a freshman in high school, and then I got really into jazz after that. I studied a lot of ‘50s and ‘60s jazz.
WWBW: What about high school?
SE: I’d always do like funny gigs with my dad. You know, I think we played some Mountain Town Festival and we played Dixieland stuff on the back of a truck or something. But it was always just do something with my dad. In high school I had some really good teachers. Jerry Noonan and Scott Springer were great band directors at East High School, which was the school Ron Miles and Bill Frisell attended. I learned a lot from Ron Jolly as part of a citywide jazz combo that ran during the school years. Ron Miles was my main jazz mentor during my teen years though. I would show up at his house a lot and he was always incredibly generous and thoughtful with his time. I owe him a great debt for all the help he gave me and continues to give me now as the Department head at my new teaching job at Metropolitan State University.
WWBW: You started off pointing at Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Miles Davis. When did you take the further left turn?
SE: Like check out more modern stuff?
SE: Well, there was a really great record store here, which is sadly gone now in Denver. But when I was growing up, there was a place called Jerry’s Record Exchange and it was this really funny like dirty old place and they just had so much vinyl and tons of like weird jazz music and those guys, they listened to everything.
WWBW: So did you pick up a Lester Bowie album there?
SE: Exactly. I would come in and they were like, “Hey check out this AACM stuff. Do you know Dave Douglas?” That was where I first heard about him. I was like, oh, okay. And Kenny Wheeler and then more like Peter Brotzman and Bill Dixon and the more like really…and stuff that’s even further, kind of like more free and atmospheric than Ornette. In college I started catching up on a lot of classic R&B, rock, and funk music that I wasn't up on. Stevie Wonder, Graham Central Station, James Brown, The Beatles, etc. Meshell N'Dege Ocello's music and bands were a big influence on me at that time as well.
WWBW: By college, are you referring to the Eastman School of Music?
SE: Eastman, yeah.
WWBW: And that’s where you met a lot of the Kneebody guys? Or all of them?
SE: Yeah almost all. Everybody except for Nate, the drummer, went to Eastman together and then we met Nate when everyone ended up living in Los Angeles not too long after we all graduated.
WWBW: Are you loyal to a particular trumpet maker?
SE: I’ve had the same Martin Committee, like an old Martin Committee, for a long time and that’s kind of the horn I use most of the time, but I don’t have an endorsement or anything like that.
WWBW: What about mouthpieces? Are you mouthpiece freaky? Constantly searching for the perfect mouthpiece?
SE: I usually just have like two or three that I kind of go between but mainly just a Bach 3C is what I play with the Martin. I’ve used that for a long time and then that’s sort of my home base. But then I have another shallower Bach that I’ll use sometimes in a different horn if I have to play like Big Band or a pit orchestra thing, where it should be a little brighter sound that projects a little more than the Martin does because I have all the lacquer stripped off of that. It’s a very dark sound.
WWBW: I think you’re an endorser with Jo-Ral, right?
SE: I have always used Jo-Ral mutes. That always has been one of my favorite mutes anyways especially the bubble mutes, so the endorsement deal is perfect for me. I especially love the bubble mutes, but the straights and the bucket, they’re all really nice.
WWBW: There’s a strong component of signal processing in your sound. Do you take the output of the mic directly into whatever your processing device is and then out into the snake from there?
SE: Yeah, that’s how I do it and just run it into the PA and then I just hear it back from the monitor. And for me, that’s the easiest to have some more control over it. Just from where I’m at on the stage in terms of level and mix and stuff like that.
WWBW: I was playing a live Kneebody piece for a bunch of the guys at work and one of them looked at me and says, “That’s the only time I’ve ever heard a ring modulator sound good.” [LAUGHTER]
SE: Man, that’s high praise. It’s kind of a wild beast, that ring mod. I’ve been pulling out of the chain actually. I used that for a long time. I also have this really cool pedal by Electro Harmonix. It’s called a Microsynth.
WWBW: Yeah, I know it.
SE: It’s really cool as far as an overdrive sound, and it had a couple nice ways you could kind of like sweep in the attack.
WWBW: Yeah, there’s a little kind of a slider or synth component.
SE: Exactly, yeah.
WWBW: Bring in and emphasize different modifications of the sound. Electro Harmonix made some crazy pedals through the ‘60s and ‘70s.
SE: Yeah some great stuff. That stuff I haven’t been traveling with as much lately but there are a couple new things I’ve been shopping. I’m kind of switching out for gear, actually, some of the pedals. In fact, I might be doing some shopping with Woodwind & Brasswind pretty soon. I’ll keep the same gear for a while just kind of live with it and then try out a wholesale kind of switch. Like now I’m really going to look for some other sounds for the first time in a while.
WWBW: Oh what is the device that had the ring modulation in it? Is it one of those like master floorboards from Multi-Effects pedals?
SE: No, it’s a dedicated ring modulator by Moog.
SE: The Moogerfooger. It’s kind of the beefiest one. It’s cool. It’s just so unpredictable, especially with a trumpet signal. But every now and then it kind of lines up in the harmonics the way the dial ends up, it’ll just really resonant and sound cool and other times it just goes crazy. It’s pretty funny.
WWBW: There’s another one and it might actually be ring modulation with something else, but I remember when I was a kid in the summertime in Vermont. It’d get awful hot and you’d have the window fan running and of course I’d play my trumpet into the window fan. And it like chops it into…
SE: Oh yeah. Darth Vader sound.
WWBW: Is that the ring modulation? I heard it on your trumpet numerous times.
SE: Yeah, that would probably be the ring modulator. It has sort of like a…kind of processes the sound and spits back all these digital harmonics and stuff. And then sometimes it tremolos off so it’s in between those and that kind of weird sound like “ptfff-ptfff.” But that’s one I’ve had for a while and then I think I’m kind of looking for something else now. There’s a guy out here with a company called WMD. They make some pedals that do bit degrading. They make something called the Geiger Counter that’s really cool and I used it on the last like Kneebody and Deadalus recording. I might kind of put that in instead of ring mod but I have to get it kind of modified with them somehow so that it doesn’t pick up so much. It’s not so sensitive to surrounding sound like the stage sound. I’ve tried to use it live as soon as I click it on, just like any sound from the other amps or the drums it just shuts the pedal off. It just goes nuts.
WWBW: It’s a completely different art to learn is managing the electronic devices to make them do what your mind and your ear envision.
SE: For sure. And I’m by no means an expert but I do like using that stuff.
WWBW: You’ve studied drums pretty intensely. Describe the importance of your drum studies and if it does, how development of your rhythmic sensibility informs your composing and trumpet improvisation.
SE: It’s a big part of my trumpet playing for sure and the two things really go hand in hand. So I started trumpet when I was 9 and then drums when I was 13. I always studied trumpet formally, but drums I am more self-taught. I always used to play in the basement, play along with records and play with friends. I always played and I felt it really has helped me to have a nice strong sense of rhythm and time that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise if I wasn’t spending all those hours on the drums all these years. I think a lot of times for writing, I’ll think about writing more specific drum parts or feels sometimes for my own compositions, and sometimes my phrasing, just when I’m improvising on trumpet, I think is influenced by drum phrases and language.
WWBW: I remember reading a Coltrane interview fairly late in his life and he said something like, “You know I’m kind of more or less satisfied with the harmonic explorations that I’ve done but I’ve only just begun to crack the rhythm part.”
SE: A beautiful sound and a great feel, a great sense of time are the two most fundamental musicianship qualities that really serve us well.
WWBW: I see what Kneebody does as part of an encouraging resurgence in instrumental jazz, maybe Snarky Puppy at the top of that heap. They’ve really figured out how to find an audience and communicate with it. I don’t even know if I have a question with regard to it. It’s just encouraging to see.
SE: Yeah, I like that too and often will play jazz clubs that have more traditional booking and programming during the year and it’ll be a younger audience that will come in than maybe they get on an average night during the week. We appreciate that because we hope our band stays together for a long time and we want for those people to be our audience for a long time. So it’s another generation that’s interested in bands really playing music, creating music.
WWBW: I’m 57. There’s a certain amount of hand wringing among my musician peers, but I see the enthusiasm and energy for instrumental music among young people so perhaps it’s over-reported to a degree.
SE: It’s one of those things like I guess for my parents’ generation and your parents’ generation, more people played some kind of instrument than they do now.
WWBW: That’s true.
SE: And we know from doing it what is it to be able to communicate and connect with other people in that way when you’re playing music, and what it feels just like for your humanity in a sense of peace and tranquility. I feel bad if our kids don’t have that kind of thing around them as much anymore. Here in Denver, my father always did a lot of educational outreach to promote live music. He passed away just recently so there’s his non-profit organization to continue on, so I think I may pick up that end of it and be kind of the director of educational outreach for his organization.
WWBW: That would be a wonderful way to sustain his legacy and to establish your own. You know, a lot of the musicians I’ve talked to after they’ve made their bones in their 20s, 30s and 40s, they often re-orient themselves towards education. My hero, Clark Terry, really oriented himself toward education in the last several decades of his life.
SE: Yeah, he did seem like such a saintly guy in that way. I went to one of his camps when I was in high school and he was such like a jovial, congenial, loving person to everybody. He was already an old man then.
SE: So he couldn’t have been feeling like that spry and he’s like waltzing around all these band rehearsals and stuff. He was such a sweet guy and still playing. God, what an amazing player!
SE: I’ve been listening to him a fair amount lately actually. Finding some old live footage. He was such a unique, soulful sweet player and could do anything on the horn.
WWBW: The perfect trumpet player in my estimation. Just embouchure, chops, sounds and as you say attitude, approach and joy. Well, we’ve pretty much wrapped it up, Shane. Is there anything you want Woodwind & Brasswind readers to know that we haven’t touched on?
SE: Well, Kneebody has a couple of nice shows coming up. We’re playing in Los Angeles soon at the Grand Performances series on July 1st and then we’re going to finish some recording for a couple days after that and have a new album coming out early next year. So we love to tell the readers about that for sure.
SE: And then we’ll be in Europe for a couple of nice festivals. The Gent Jazz Festival and the North Sea Jazz Festival this July. Newport for the second year in a row.
WWBW: Do you have a name for your new release?
SE: No. We didn’t get as far as the title yet. We have to get the last couple of tracks, then mix it, master it and then we’ll begin the arduous process of what you call it.
WWBW: Keep us posted and we will bang that drum for you.
SE: Thanks for featuring us. I appreciate it.
WWBW: I understand you were raised in LA?
Ben Wendel: Yes, raised on the Westside of LA. I think it's a really great city if you know how to use it.
WWBW: I read something about your mother having been elemental in the creation of a theater in Los Angeles.
BW: She was a professional opera singer for 25 years and sang with the LA Opera Company. She retired from that and got into arts administration. She went to Santa Monica College and created her own position with the idea of raising money to build a performing arts center, which she did. That theater is called the Broad Stage and is entering it’s eighth season.
WWBW: So you were raised and steeped in a very arts-oriented environment from your earliest recollections?
BW: Quite a bit, yes. My mom was the only musician parent, but my great aunt went to Julliard for piano. She had stage fright so she never became a performer but she always played for me. And my grandmother played flute with Toscanini. So there's always been a pretty strong classical vein running in my family.
My stepfather is an entertainment lawyer who mostly represents classical musicians, people like Placido Domingo, Gil Shaham, et cetera. I've definitely been raised in that kind of environment. I guess I'd be the first one that sort of branched out into other fields outside of the classical world.
WWBW: Did she plop you down in front of the piano at four wondering if you’re going to be a modern Mozart?
BW: Yes, exactly. I did have lessons when I was young. My piano teacher was a huge man with a giant handlebar mustache who smoked cigars while he gave me the lessons.
WWBW: You know what? I had a heavy cigarette smoker trombone player who gave me my trumpet lessons when I was away at prep school. This 15 year old kid looking up at his bloodshot eyes, guy's smoking like — Camel non-filters.
BW: Yeah, I was like six I think
WWBW: Times have changed, huh?
BW: I got out of those lessons pretty fast, but luckily the public school system I was in, which was Santa Monica Unified, had great music programs, God bless them.
WWBW: Like even elementary school?
BW: Yes, when I was 10, we had a guy come in. Think his name was Mr. Mettler and he showed us all the instruments.
WWBW: Played each of them a little bit? A little brass, a little reed?
BW: Yes, exactly, like a little demonstration.
WWBW: That would be Mr. Gribbon from Brattleboro, Vermont.
BW: That was who it was for you?
WWBW: Yeah, I'll never forget that guy.
BW: That's cool. I was just lucky in that regard. I mean music was in my family but I was lucky in the sense that the schools provided opportunities to learn music.
WWBW: Did you start on clarinet?
BW: I started on alto and then when I was 13 and in high school they had a really strong orchestral program. They needed a bassoon player so I picked up the bassoon also and continued to play those instruments to this day.
WWBW: Do you have a bassoon?
BW: Yes. I play bassoon for recordings. I've played it on my albums.
WWBW: Do you play other double reeds?
BW: No. Just bassoon.
WWBW: You've got a beautiful sound on bassoon. I heard that duet that you did with Julian.
BW: Oh, with Julian Lage.
WWBW: Breathtaking. Isn't he something else?
BW: Yes, he is something else.
WWBW: That whole project, what is it called again?
BW: The Seasons.
WWBW: Vivaldi inspired to a degree, but a little more microscopic? Twelve instead of four?
BW: Actually those were inspired by a different famous classical composer. Those were inspired by Tchaikovsky, believe it or not. He wrote a series of 12 piano sonatas in 1876 that he called The Seasons and that's where I actually started. I mean we all know the Vivaldi Seasons but it was those Tchaikovsky pieces that made me start to think about a yearlong cycle of music. I was really moved by those pieces so that's what made me think of doing twelve duets.
WWBW: Describe this idea a little bit.
BW: I was thinking about the passage of time and how making and documenting music is a musician's way of marking a moment in their life - it’s a snapshot if you will. I was also really interested in showing a little cross-section of our scene from this moment in time. I wanted some older generation musicians that I really respect and love and then peers as well, and then some younger folks too, to show where the music is evolving at this moment.
WWBW: There are a lot of musicians to admire.
BW: Totally, but those were the twelve that worked out and aligned with what I was hoping to do.
WWBW: Would you describe Kneebody as your main musical association right now?
BW: I would say that's been my longest ongoing labor of love project. So I'm sort of at a crossroads right now, which is that Kneebody is doing really well. It’s very strong. We just did almost three months of touring in the United States and Europe. I want that to live. Then as an individual musician I'm sort of carving out my own space now as a composer and player. I have a discography, but nothing compared to the work that I've done with Kneebody. So basically I want to see Kneebody continue to grow and prosper, and then also I’m carving out some musical real estate for myself as an individual outside of that ensemble.
WWBW: From a compositional standpoint, some of these ideas that occur to you, do you say to yourself, “Obviously this is going to be a fit for Kneebody,” or do you purposefully get yourself thinking in a Kneebody vein?
BW: I generally have had the most success as a writer when I write to projects specifically. When I envision a specific project or a specific band or a specific musician, I usually hear musician's voice on their instrument, so generally when I'm writing a piece, if I'm thinking about Kneebody then that's usually where the music is going.
WWBW: As you know we're a retailer. We're all about the gear so couple of equipment questions. What do you play for an instrument?
BW: My primary ax is a Selmer Super Balanced Action tenor. I don't know how technical you guys get… WBW: Oh, yeah absolutely. I'm not a reed player but our readers are. Go, man go…
BW: It’s a 48xxx range horn and presently I play an Otto Link Reso Chamber mouthpiece.
WWBW: Do you ever poke around in the new mouthpiece field? There are some spectacular mouthpieces on the market, crazy precision manufacturing, top quality materials and design.
BW: I do. I've tried — I don't play them, but I've tried and enjoyed Ted Klum pieces.
WWBW: Some of the upper end manufacturers we deal with are Theo Wanne, Jody Jazz, MACSAX. You ever play any of those?
BW: Oh, yeah. MACSAX, is that the one that Bob Sheppard …
WWBW: Bob Sheppard signature, yes.
BW: Absolutely, yes. I've played those. I'm friends with Bob and I've played many of those models and I think they're great. In fact when a student can't afford a thousand dollar vintage mouthpiece I'll often direct them towards Bob's models. I think those are great pieces.
WWBW: How about the great reed debate? Where do you come down on that?
BW: I've been with D'Addario —I guess originally it was Rico but essentially I've been with D'Addario for nearly 10 years and I play a three medium filed, and I've been very happy with that. I haven't messed with the Fibercells or anything like that. Don't have much of an opinion on that, although maybe I should look again. I'm sure the technology's always getting better.
WWBW: In listening to Kneebody and in some of your own catalog you wander into signal processing.
BW: In Kneebody definitely. I use the Voodoo power labs power supply, the mini version. I use the Line DL4 delay and I use the Fender Blender, which is like a fuzz pedal that's a reissue from the 70s.
WWBW: You ever do anything with ring modulators?
BW: Oh, like the Moogerfooger and stuff like that? Personally, no, I know but Shane definitely has and continues to, but I don't . And I know he also uses the Digitech Whammy, which is that harmony pedal. I also use — what's it — it's made by Boss, their mini volume pedal, which is really great.
BW: That one, yeah.
WWBW: So you've gotten your chops together. You've got a clear vision of who you are as a musician. All the puzzle pieces seem to be in place for you. What kind of practice schedule do you keep? Do you have a steady daily routing?
BW: I do and it's roughly been the same since I went to the Eastman School of Music. My teacher back then was a guy name Ray Ricker who was a great educator. Eastman is kind of an old-school rigorous conservatory that's pretty steeped in the classical world and so I think some of that rubbed off on me. Usually it's long tones and overtones, some kind of intense warm-up exercise and then I practice patterns and cycle them through all twelve keys. I work on different rhythm exercises with and without the metronome, and then every day I try and write and I also try to learn songs. Like yesterday I learned that great ballad Here's That Rainy Day.
WWBW: Didn't Sinatra do that?
BW: When I learn a tune I usually check three or four versions out so I checked out Nat King Cole, I checked out Sinatra, which was a beautiful version. I checked out Nancy Wilson. It really gives you a cool vision of the piece because they're all harmonized a little different. They're in different keys. It's a really fun challenge.
WWBW: Hey, speaking of Sinatra, that duet you did with Luciana Souza was probably my favorite piece from “Seasons.” She was at the Hollywood Bowl on the Frank Sinatra 100th birthday celebration. I saw that show and she was a real highlight. She sang all the samba material.
BW: Of course. I assume she sounded amazing. That looked like a great night. There were a bunch of different singers, right?
WWBW: Yeah believe it or not hosted by another fine singer, Seth McFarland, right?
BW: Yeah, right, totally. He’s kind of a multi-talented dude.
WWBW: He's something else. He has a good life. He can't stop smiling. Well, I think we've covered the gear and the music, at least for the limited space we have. Is there anything — I've got to squish all of this and your and Shane interview into a shamefully short spot. Is there anything else you want Woodwind & Brasswind to know about you, your music, recording, touring plans, anything coming up?
BW: I have an album coming out in September on Motema Music, which is a great label that has folks like the piano prodigy Joey Alexander. The CD is called What We Bring. I'll be doing a bunch of touring for it. Almost three weeks in the States and then some stuff in Europe so I guess I would want folks to know about that.
WWBW: Okay, we'll make sure that's in there. Any LA dates for Kneebody or yourself in another context? I'd love to come see you.
BW: We’ll be doing a free outdoor concert at Grand Performances. That's in downtown LA on July 1st. The current project we've been touring is a collaborative effort with an electronic musician named Daedelus.
WWBW: Thank you for your time and I think we had a nice chat.
BW: And you guys tend to include the URLs to websites or anything like that? Will that be in there?
WWBW: Yeah, absolutely. It's www.kneebody.com for the band and yours is www.benwendel.com.
BW: Thanks Chris.
WWBW: All right Ben, get some sleep.