Magic 101
Frank Wess

The title refers not to a smooth jazz radio station, but rather combines the moniker of Frank Wess with a number that typically designates a basic course of study, and indeed this CD contains a series of lessons in how to properly perform a standard pop or jazz tune. The 91-year-old Wess has refined his artistry to the point that no note is superficial, every inflection has meaning, and every improvisation is lucid and fresh sounding, the culmination of his time spent with the Billy Eckstine and Count Basie big bands, the New York Jazz Quartet, Dameronia, the "Two Franks" Quintet co-led with Frank Foster, and countless other musical experiences. Wess was just 89 at the time of this 2011 session, and it can be argued that he has never played better, nor had more complementary support than that provided here by pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis, and drummer Winard Harper. The only disappointment is that Wess is heard exclusively on tenor sax, thus depriving us of his revered talent on flute, despite a photo in the CD packaging oddly enough depicting him playing that instrument.

Wess states the melody of "Say It Isn't So" in a matter-of-fact, vocalizing manner with gruff accents and slurs, before launching a discerning and involving solo that never abandons the thematic content while taking salient liberties with it. Barron's improv shares Wess' logic and unflagging momentum, and Davis streaks through the changes before Wess' fluid recap. Barron's pretty intro to "The Very Thought of You" sets up Wess' exquisite theme reading, where every note counts and subtle alterations in tone are all enhancing. The pianist's glistening excursion is delicate, bluesy, and resolute, while Wess' solo and coda find each new phrase flowing responsively from the last in stories well-told. Harper's impeccable drum work cannot be overlooked as well.

The leader's original ballad, "Pretty Lady," has a standard-level quality to its moving melody, and Wess and Barron's duet rendition is a study in theme (Wess) and variations (the pianist's articulate fills). Wess' solo engages Barron at his own game, as he weaves a spell while leaving pauses in his thought-stream for Barron to sketch. Barron's own pronouncement is elaborate in its right-hand lines as his left supplies sparse and gently struck figures. The Wess-Barron duet version of "Come Rain or Come Shine" possesses a certain all-enduring lilt and persuasiveness. Wess' polished yet meaty exposition oscillates through the chord sequences with nary a cliché in sight, backed by Barron's stride-influenced piano, with a blues sensibility underlying it all, including the pianist's delightfully cascading solo. Wess' reprise is as good as gold.

The tenor saxophonist's unaccompanied intro to "Easy Living," and his deeply felt presentation of the theme, are the work of a peerless, securely wise master. His bluesy interjections, slides, slurs, and whispers in his solo envelop and intoxicate the listener. The backing trio excels, with Davis' booming notes and Harper's crisp cymbal accentuations a continuous asset. Barron's solo merges brisk flurries with thoughtful chords. Wess' robust return to embellish the bridge, and his ruminating coda are yet two more highlights. Thelonious Monk's venerable "Blue Monk" is taken at a serene tempo, with Barron's infectious, naturally soulful prelude giving way to Wess' sly take on the melody, and then his commanding extemporization that at times evokes laid back Johnny Hodges or testifying Arnett Cobb. Duke Ellington's memorable ballad "All Too Soon" is interpreted by Wess without the trio. His nuanced phrases have the personalized distinction of a human voice, and his emotional delivery is impactful and stirring. Every note again has its proper place, purpose, and effect, right down to the last cavernous few that conclude both the track and this priceless recording.

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Scott Albin