Friday, February 14, 2014

Frank Wess: Magic 101

IPO Recordings
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Magic 101

Every true jazz fan, particularly those who were part of the big band years, is familiar with Frank Wess. This tenor sax master was born in Oklahoma, all the way back in 1922, and he’s still active ... as this wonderful album clearly demonstrates. 

Wess began his music career in high school, initially playing tenor sax and classical music; he turned to jazz after his family relocated to Washington, D.C. He was playing with big bands by the time he turned 19. After an interruption for World War II service, he joined Billy Eckstine’s band, returned to school at D.C.’s Modern School of Music, and earned a degree in flute. He was hired by Count Basie in 1953, an association lasted until 1964: an almost unprecedented period of time for a jazz musician.

Not many reed artists doubled on flute during those early years, and Wess won Downbeat’s critic poll for that instrument from 1959 through ’64. He also added the alto sax to his horn arsenal during that period.

It’s difficult to cite a band that Wess hasn’t played with. Clark Terry, Roland Hanna, Kenny Baron, Rufus Reid, Buck Clayton, Benny Carter, Billy Taylor and Louis Bellson are just a few leaders to benefit from his talents; he also was in backup groups for vocalists such as Ernestine Anderson and Mel Torme. Wess is and always has been, to borrow the familiar phrase, a “musician’s musician.”

From a talent standpoint, he’s ageless. Most artists get stuck in a time slot: They’re remembered for how great they were during a particular period. That’s not the case with Wess; as jazz has advanced over the years, so has he. Although still famous for his association with Basie, Wess also is noted for his contributions to modernists such as John Coltrane, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Thad Jones and John Pizzarelli.

This album mostly features Wess with a “small jazz” group: a quartet that features pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis, and drummer Winard Harper. The menu primarily comprises melodies from the Great American Songbook and elite composers: Irving Berlin, Ray Noble, Mercer & Arlen, Robin & Ranger, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. For good measure, Wess includes one of his own compositions, “Pretty Lady.” 

The opening standard, Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So,” is done at a sinuous mid-tempo that showcases Wess’ masterful tenor sax work, and illustrates just what pure jazz really is. This album’s rendition of Noble’s “The Very Thought of You” is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard, and it perfectly sets the stage for the aforementioned “Pretty Lady.” These two ballads demand a few more “dance with me” melodies, and Wess obliges with “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Easy Living.” By this time, you won’t want to let go of your significant other; Wess further amplifies that mood with the grooving “Blue Monk” and, finally, Ellington’s seldom-heard “All Too Soon.”

Wess is in his 90s, and one can only hope he lives forever. This is, simply, the best jazz album I’ve heard in years. Don’t miss it! 

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