Working with big personalities is a recurring theme in bassist Ben Wolfe’s career arc. Half a decade spent in the employ of Harry Connick Jr. as the pianist’s musical director led to an extended tenure with Wynton Marsalis and ongoing membership in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Wolfe parlayed those high profile assignments into a professional relationship with Grammy-winning singer Diana Krall. Along the way came gigs with Joe Henderson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, James Moody and other jazz royalty. All that name-dropping suggests an operator able to meet his bandleaders’ needs in an exacting and superlative fashion.
The Whisperer, Wolfe’s latest as a leader, points to one of the potential side effects of being a successful sideman to the stars. When a musician devotes his talent regularly to that kind of wattage does his own individuality and assertiveness necessarily suffer in the bargain? Put differently, when one is accustomed to delivering top flight work for others does it become at all difficult to switch gears into a leadership role? Wolfe’s lead-from-behind approach here suggests a compelling case that while it very well might, the overall effect isn’t adverse or worth getting worked up about.
The band at hand draws directly from the lasting ties Wolfe developed with the vibrant scene operating out of the Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls. Pianist Orrin Evans, saxophonist Stacy Dillard and drummer Donald Edwards are all regulars there and the quartet evinces the kind of rapport built from nightly stage conclaves from the opening hard swinger “Heroist”. Wolfe walks confidently through most of the piece, leaving the fireworks to Evans and Dillard. The slow ballad “Hat in Hand” finds him gearing down to a more porous sound, spacing his notes judiciously against the steady cymbal splashes of Edwards. Dillard’s soprano glides through the theme in close concert with Evans and result is a standout track.
Aplomb is also abundantly apparent in Wolfe’s chosen songbook, all originals except for a pithy rendering of “All the Things You Are”. His writing is uniformly sharp, evidence again that all that time spent in the company of heavy hitters rubbed off in the form of a decisive compositional voice. “Community” has the soaring, effervescent openness of classic postbop and benefits directly from another spiraling Dillard turn on the straight horn. “S.T.F.U.” mirrors the stern sentiment of its acronym title on the back of a funky bass groove and a guest spot by trumpeter Josh Evans who proves just as attuned as the others to Wolfe’s self-effacing intents and purposes. Evans and Dillard are the principal soloists on most pieces, suggesting not a reticence on the part of the leader, but rather an abiding confidence in the expertise of his colleagues.