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Saxophonist Ben Wendel Reimagines Tchaikovsky's, 'The Seasons'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It can take many months, even years, for a composer to finish a new piece of music. Ben Wendel challenged himself to create a new piece every month this year. His inspiration goes back to 1876. That's when a St. Petersburg music magazine commissioned the Russian composer Tchaikovsky to do that, to write a new piano piece for every month of that year. The series was called "The Seasons," and here's Tchaikovsky's "June."

(SOUNDBITE OF TCHAIKOVSKY SONG, "JUNE")

CORNISH: Ben Wendel's 2015 version of this project updates the concept.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JUNE WITH LUCIANA SOUZA & BEN WENDEL")

CORNISH: Wendel is also a Grammy-nominated saxophonist. He's been recording a duet performance with a different musician every month this year. And he posts each video for free on his website. Commentator Michelle Mercer has been watching and listening and says Wendel composes each piece with his collaborator in mind.

MICHELLE MERCER, BYLINE: As you watch the video of Ben Wendel and drummer Eric Harland joking around on their way to the studio, it's clear they're headed for a loose fun session of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: APRIL WITH ERIC HARLAND & BEN WENDEL")

ERIC HARLAND: We're going to go up to this high-rise. I'm going up all day.

MERCER: The musicians' banter feeds right into the charged interplay of their music. There's a lot happening here in this "April" installment of "The Seasons."

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: APRIL WITH ERIC HARLAND & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: Wendel on tenor sax is covering both harmony in a lower line and the melody up high. But the main thing this collaboration brings across is a sense of camaraderie, of Wendel being inspired by Harland's levity and his powerful finesse on the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: APRIL WITH ERIC HARLAND & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: With this video series of duets, Wendel wants to showcase the musical personalities of his friends. Here in his "January" interpretation with pianist Taylor Eigsti, both musicians bring propulsive rock energy and jazz improvisation to a classical style.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JANUARY WITH TAYLOR EIGSTI & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: Wendel's circle of musicians all share a genre-combining sensibility. In "The Season's" most recent release, "July," we're transported to a sunny Manhattan apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JULY WITH JULIAN LAGE & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: That of guitarist Julian Lage. The music has the tranquility of a deserted city block on a summer weekend, and Wendel, on the bassoon here, relaxes into Lage's virtuosity so completely they might as well be the only two musicians left in town.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JULY WITH JULIAN LAGE & BEN WENDEL")

MERCER: With "The Seasons," Wendel expresses the simple truth that for an artist like him, the experience and shape of a year are defined by his talented friends, and along the way he's giving us insight into some of the sharpest musicians around today.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WENDEL SONG, "THE SEASONS: JULY WITH JULIAN LAGE & BEN WENDEL")

CORNISH: Ben Wendel's final five installments of "The Seasons" will be released on each remaining month of the year at his website, BenWendel.com. Our reviewer is Michelle Mercer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.