Magic 201-- Frank Wess

If only every elder statesman of jazz could cap a career as Frank Wess did with his two definitive CDs Magic 101 and Magic 201, recorded just two years before his death in 2013 at the age of 91. The sessions from June and September 2011 that resulted respectively in Magic 101 and Magic 201 each featured pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Winard Harper, but on the latter Rufus Reid replaces bassist Kenny Davis and guitarist Russell Malone is added. Wess mostly plays standards as tried and true as himself on both releases, his mainstream tenor saxophone distilled to perfection, combining a well-honed sense of form with a probing flexibility. Those who missed it on Magic 101 will be pleased to learn that Wess also regales us with his masterful flute artistry on one track of what would be his last album.

A perky medium tempo keeps the opening "It Could Happen to You" sailing along, as Wess varies his attack in terms of phrasing and inflection in the first of a series of succinct statements that continue with Barron, Malone, and Reid, the bassist's evolving into seamless, storytelling exchanges with the leader. "A Cottage for Sale" is one of "the real good old ones," as Satchmo might have said, infrequently heard these days, and Wess charms with a breathy, easeful grace on the theme à la Ben Webster. His thematic solo explores a multitude of the tune's nooks and crannies with sincere conviction, and Malone's ringing guitar and Barron's soulful piano each briefly expound before Wess' reprise. Malone's delicate intro and coda cannot be overlooked, nor how the arrangement allows him and Barron to split the comping duties with sensitive flair. Sir Roland Hanna wrote "After Paris" for Coleman Hawkins back in the "60's, but this is the first time the ballad has ever been recorded by a saxophonist. Just as Wess evoked Webster a bit on "A Cottage for Sale," here he adopts Hawkins' edgier tone to some extent from his introduction on, in a dreamy, ornamental rendition that also includes a reflective Barron spot, Reid's penetrating bass lines, and Malone's wafting guitar.

Wess mesmerizes on flute from the first melody notes of Bergman and Legrand's "The Summer Knows," unaccompanied throughout and rewardingly so. His technical control, pure and rich sound, and sparkling, uninhibited phrasing during his solo make this a singular tour de force. The Wess-Barron duet on "Embraceable You" is deeply emotional in its impact, beginning with the tenor's caressing treatment of the theme above the pianist's sultry accompaniment. Barron proceeds alone to artfully embellish the melody as his left hand strides gently. Wess follows with a delivery ranging from sweet to brawny, not a cliché in sight, concluding with a characteristically majestic coda. "Blues for Ruby" is a down home Wess blues that allows Malone to display his authentic facility in the genre, and its composer to pontificate in the best blues tenor tradition-- think Gene Ammons or Arnett Cobb as guideposts. Reid's booming bass, Harper's kicking drums, and Barron's earthy augmentation complete the picture, but not before the guitarist and pianist lay down persuasive improvs and Wess returns to ride the pulsating rhythmic trail with swaggering aplomb.

The odd title of Wess' "If You Can't Call, Don't Come" doesn't prepare you for the exquisite, suspended-in-air balladry that transpires for a full nine minutes plus. Wess' theme is old school standard quality, and his tonal alterations, swooping constructs and overall bluesy fervor as he stretches out at length melodically are indeed the work of a master of his craft. Malone and Barron contribute glowing, if truncated, expressions of their own prior to Wess' reiteration and his substantial coda that wraps up this noteworthy track. "If It's the Last Thing I Do" finds a walking Reid paving the way for Wess' swinging mid-tempo conveyance of the Chaplin and Cahn melody. Barron aptly expands upon the content while not straying far from its core, while Wess blusters and riffs in his solo, the riffing especially concentrated during Reid's commanding turn.

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Scott Albin