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Frank Wess: Magic 201 (2014)

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Frank Wess: Magic 201 How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

Despite a career that spanned more than half of a century, Frank Wess was not a household name. The flautist/saxophonist spent the 1950s and 60s playing with some of the best known big bands in the U.S. including those of Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
1914 - 1993
vocalist
, Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
and Clark Terry
Clark Terry
Clark Terry
b.1920
trumpet
. During that period he was primarily recognized as a flute virtuoso though he played both alto and tenor saxophone at that time as well. Wess shifted his attention more toward the saxophone later in his career and worked with the likes of Benny Carter
Benny Carter
Benny Carter
1907 - 2003
sax, alto
, Hank Jones
Hank Jones
Hank Jones
1918 - 2010
piano
, John Pizzarelli
John Pizzarelli
John Pizzarelli
b.1960
guitar
and Toshiko Akiyoshi
Toshiko Akiyoshi
Toshiko Akiyoshi
b.1929
piano
among others. Pianist Kenny Barron
Kenny Barron
Kenny Barron
b.1943
piano
and bassist Rufus Reid
Rufus Reid
Rufus Reid
b.1944
bass, acoustic
were among those later stage contemporaries and they return for Magic 201, Wess's final studio album.

Like its prequel—Magic 101 (IPO Recordings, 2013)—this is a laid back event where the swing is moderate and the ballads are serene. Wess contributes two original pieces to a set that includes covers dating back to the 1920's. Wess has wisely chosen a diverse and sophisticated mix that is, in part, distant from the usual rotation of standards. The opener, Jimmy Van Heusen's "It Could Happen to You," provides Barron, Reid and guitarist Russell Malone
Russell Malone
Russell Malone
b.1963
guitar, electric
ample time for solos. The moderate swing tempo is as throttled as the pace gets which is fine as it serves more to introduce the quintet than to telegraph the tone going forward. Drummer Winard Harper, the kid in the group, relatively speaking, brings his own straight-ahead experience from time served with Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
and Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
1928 - 2008
sax, tenor
. His contribution on Magic 201 is subtle and nuanced but guides the direction of the pieces almost imperceptibly.

Though he predominantly focuses on the tenor sax on Magic 201, Wess reads Michel Legrand's, "The Summer Knows" as a flute solo. Not only is it a stunning version of the piece but it serves to demonstrate that Wess—as he approached 90 years of age—had lost none of his technical or harmonic skills. Departing from that point the quintet travels back some fifty years for George Gershwin
George Gershwin
George Gershwin
1898 - 1937
composer/conductor
's "Embraceable You." Like many of the older standards in the program, the treatments are less nostalgic than deferential and imbued with Wess's temperate improvisational style.

Wess— as a leader—was not as prolific as he may have been with roughly a dozen such recordings in sixty working years and hundreds of recorded sessions. But his work in general had garnered him numerous and prestigious awards and recognition within the arts community and he was much in demand throughout his long career. Though his style was reflective, his tone on tenor was fat and substantial. A master of the ballad, Wess played with passion and warmth. His soulful, bluesy sound and his emotional phrasing of melodies adding an appealing element to all his work. Wess closes out his stellar career with a superior album in Magic 201.

Track Listing: It Could Happen to You; A Cottage for Sale; After Paris; The Summer Knows; Embraceable You; Blues for Ruby; If You Can't Call, Don't Come; If It's the Last Thing I Do.

Personnel: Frank Wess: tenor saxophone, flute; Kenny Barron: piano; Russell Malone: guitar; Rufus Reid: bass; Winard Harper: drums.

Record Label: IPO Recordings

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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