Ben Wolfe

The Understated

Street Date: August 9, 2024

The Understated features a collection of new original compositions by Wolfe paired, with re-imaginings of some of the composer’s classic material, with a particular emphasis on the ballad song-form. The album features ten tracks, five of which are ballads – a bold move for any composer – Wolfe creates a cohesive narrative here that challenges the listeners perception of the classic ballad. The Understated features Wolfe alongside artists who make up the very frontline of modern jazz, including pianist Orrin Evans, tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, drummer Aaron Kimmel, guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Sullivan Fortner.

Wolfe has always been drawn to finding beauty in subtlety. He perceives a certain tranquility and elegance in the Coltrane Quartet, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, the legendary Miles Davis bands and rhythm sections, and the music of Charlie Parker. While he, of course, revels at the immense world-building energy of this music, it’s the “other side” – the elusive, magical aspect that endlessly captivates him – the understated. The composer draws inspiration most from the ensemble work of these hallmark jazz ensembles. Despite the individual parts being extraordinarily beautiful on their own, the musicians in these archetypal ensembles play only what is needed to serve the music, paying particular attention to the band-sound more-so than their individual sound. The Understated embodies this ethos with a tremendously impactful ensemble-oriented approach.

Wolfe sought to continue the thread started by “Lullaby in D” from his previous critically acclaimed release Unjust. Wolfe indicates, “Something about that take was so perfect to me. It had been brought to life, and it had that ensemble thing.” Wolfe assembled the quartet who recorded “Lullaby” (including longtime collaborator Orrin Evans, as well as recent frequent collaborators Aaron Kimmel and Nicole Glover) and two very special guests, Russell Malone and Sullivan Fortner. The recording process took place in one room with no headphones or isolation booths, further emphasizing the group’s collective awareness.

This record succeeds in bringing Wolfe’s expansive music to life through extremely conscientious group playing. Nothing is forced or pushed; everything that needs to be stated is stated. The single from the album, “Waltz,” encapsulates the spirit of the project. Wolfe says, “I view albums like a complete painting, so singles have been difficult for me. This song is very much in the spirit of the whole but doesn’t give away the record.” The piece features a sentimental melody delivered with grace by tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, before Glover and Evans embark on stirring solos dancing in and out of the tune’s harmony.

Other new original compositions featured here include “Ballad in B”, which perhaps best demonstrates the group’s stunning cohesion. This tune is a refreshing diversion as it features a serene repeated melody without overt melodic improvisation. The following track, “Anagram”, begins with Kimmel’s rhythmic refrains and a unison melody played by Glover and Wolfe and is a true ensemble piece. On this track, Wolfe shines with a lyrical solo. The moody short interlude “So Indeed” is a lyrical masterwork that leaves the listener wanting even more.  “Beautiful You” features master guitarist Russell Malone on the track’s melody. The emphasis here on restrained lyricism is a prime reminder of the old adage “it’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play”. Each pocket of space in between melodic moments leaves room for the listener to breathe deeper and deeper into the song. The driving “Triangle Man” features fantastic improvisation from Glover and Kimmel. The tender “Barely Spoken” concludes the album with a feature for pianist Sullivan Fortner.

The album also weaves in references to Wolfe’s past works, creating a personal musical universe. “The Poet Speaks” is the opening track on his first record, 13 Sketches. “Occam’s Razor” was composed years ago for a collaboration with a choreographer and painter, and was a much different composition in its original form. “Love Is Near” was originally found on The Whisperer. With ballads in particular, Ben uses voicings and sounds that represent certain things to him, intentionally referencing his other compositions to generate connections between his songs.

Wolfe’s tremendous compositions on this album are also influenced by the group of musicians that he assembled for this release. Wolfe remarks “One of the things these five musicians share in common is that not only are they true ensemble players, they will always play something unexpected and special.” Listeners will find calm and beauty within the ensemble performances throughout The Understated.


Ben Wolfe, bass
Orrin Evans, piano
Nicole Glover, tenor saxophone
Aaron Kimmel, drums
Russell Malone guitar
Sullivan Fortner piano