In 2007, saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess was named NEA Jazz Master, and Magic 101 amply demonstrates why. This mellow session covers six standards and a Wess original, with a candid and unadorned style that is nevertheless powerful in its apparent simplicity.
Like a wise raconteur, the 89 year-old (at the time of the recording) icon embellishes the melodies with wit and erudition. His cool, big-toned tenor weaves flowing lines in muted color around the rhythm section's languid beats and chimes on "Easy Living." Pianist Kenny Barron's nocturne-esque solo closes the tune with a subtle yet sublime fantasy.
Barron's stylings on the melancholic "Come Rain Or Come Shine" are in the spirit of older, ragtime-based players with a distinctly contemporary edge. The duet recital features Wess' deeply resonant sax intricately elaborating on the theme in a laidback ad-lib conversation with his accompanist.
Wess' energetic spontaneity on "Blue Monk" is full of humor and soul and his complex and intelligent improvisation keeps the superlative trio on its proverbial toes. Supporting Barron's precise, exquisite and stimulating pianism are bassist Kenny Davis' sophisticated swagger and drummer Winard Harper's propulsive gusto. Davis also showcases his lyrical side on the exuberant and swinging "Say It Isn't So" with a series of elegant and fluid pizzicato bars.
The sole original "Pretty Lady" is a lilting ballad with Wess stretching out with a poetic flair and wistful romanticism. In addition to being a validation of Wess' legendary compositional skills it also allows Barron to channel Harlem stride masters albeit with a refined modernity.
This delightful album closes with an unaccompanied take of pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington's "All Too Soon." Wess transforms the standard into a nostalgic, cerebral soliloquy that is crisp and evocative.
At the cusp of his tenth decade of life, Wess has not only lost none of his musical acumen, he has imbued it with a mature savior faire peppered with joyful abandon. Hopefully he will continue to produce raw and dazzling gems like this well into his 90s.
Say It Isn’t So; The Very Thought of You; Pretty Lady; Come Rain or Come Shine; Easy Living; Blue Monk; All Too Soon.
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