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Barney Wilen Quartet: Live in Tokyo ’91 (Elemental)

A review of the two-CD set from the French saxophonist-led quartet

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Barney Wilen Quartet, Live in Tokyo '91
The cover of Live in Tokyo ’91 by the Barney Wilen Quartet

If you are American and you know the name Barney Wilen, it is probably from two recordings of film music. When he was 20, in 1957, Wilen played on Miles Davis’ groundbreaking improvised soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour L’échafaud. At 22, he played with Thelonious Monk on the soundtrack for another French film, Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

An unknown kid tenor saxophone player from France was an unlikely choice for both sessions, but Wilen had something. Then and now, what he had is called cool. He sounded like a West Coast tenor, but the coast was in France and the accent was Parisian. You may have wondered whatever became of him.

Live in Tokyo ’91 answers the question. Wilen was active on the European jazz scene until his death at 59 in 1996. This two-CD set catches him on a tour of Japan with a capable straight-ahead French rhythm section. The kid who recorded with Miles has become a more assertive, versatile tenor player. He powers through tunes like “Doxy” and “Bésame Mucho,” riveting ideas in place and connecting them all.

But Wilen’s gift was for ballads. On “Old Folks,” in a whisper, he lingers behind the languid beat. He can remind you of Stan Getz in the way he relaxes into a song, trusting his Muse, letting melodies flow. Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye” reveals how he could brood over a ballad and seduce you into its story.

The best historical jazz labels perform a valuable service by rescuing lost music, and an even more valuable service by rescuing lost jazz musicians. Elemental, a relatively new player in the historical-label category, has produced a nice package with photos, reminiscences from friends and musical associates, and high-quality sound—all for the worthwhile purpose of keeping Barney Wilen from being forgotten.

Check the price of Live in Tokyo ’91 on Amazon!

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Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.