Former Count Basie Band saxophonist Frank Wess, 89 at the time of this 2011 recording, is in classic form throughout. Accompanied by pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper, he employs his tenor saxophone exclusively—no flute, no alto. He has a thick tone and articulates notes in a manner reminiscent of Ben Webster. This album is not a showcase for wringing harmonic variations out of the chord changes; it’s more about melodic improvisation and rhythm. Five of the performances are ballads, with “Blue Monk” and “Say It Isn’t So” completing the session. Wess plays Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon” unaccompanied, and “Come Rain or Come Shine” and an original ballad titled “Pretty Lady” with Barron only. The duet performances demonstrate not only the pianist’s engaging solo abilities but also his skill at providing lively yet unobtrusive support.
Coming next to last in the playlist, “Blue Monk” reveals a more gut-bucket side of the saxophonist, as he opens his solo with a twisting, oblique, attention-grabbing phrase and builds through several blues choruses with Davis’ bass walking a righteous beat with the rhythm section. It’s encouraging that Wess is still playing this strong at his age, providing a living link to the big-band era and to a time when you learned jazz on the job.