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Frank Wess: Magic 101

Jack Bowers By

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The "magic" here lies not only in the radiant music created by this stellar quartet of world-class musicians but also in the fact that its leader, Frank Wess, was a youthful eighty-nine years old when this splendid album was recorded in June 2011. Wess was once a star soloist (on tenor sax and flute) with the legendary Count Basie Orchestra, but that was back in the '50s and early '60s, when the big bands were riding high. While he has (obviously) remained active since then, his name is no longer as familiar to most jazz fans as it was when he and fellow tenor Frank Foster were lighting up Basie's saxophone section. Wess was always soft-spoken, both personally and musically, and his tenor has assumed a mellow Lester Young-like character, albeit with a slightly harder edge (and some Ben Webster on the side).

Granted, this is not an album for those who are partial to sparks and fireworks; as befits his advanced years, Wess prefers the gentler, more introspective temper and equable cadences of a ballad. If his colleagues—pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Winard Harper—have any problem with that, it is certainly not apparent. They go about their business with calm efficiency, capably supporting Wess at every turn and soloing adeptly whenever called upon. Barron's talents, of course, are widely known, as he has been on the scene for almost half a century and has performed and recorded with a who's who of jazz royalty from Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz to Ella Fitzgerald, Freddie Hubbard, Elvin Jones, James Moody and others too numerous to mention. He doesn't disappoint here, producing solos that are models of clarity and taste.

Wess, for his part, makes no concessions to Father Time, playing not only with warmth and intelligence but with a technical know-how that belies his imminent induction into the rather exclusive society of nonagenarians. As for the music, he stays close to the tried-and-true, starting with "Say It Isn't So" and continuing with the standards "The Very Thought of You," "Come Rain or Come Shine" (a duet with Barron) and "Easy Living," Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk" and his own handsome ballad "Pretty Lady" (another duet), before closing with a virtuosic solo reading of Duke Ellington's "All Too Soon."

If, as the saying goes, there really is no substitute for experience, Frank Wess clearly underlines the point on Magic 101, a delightful session that brings out the best in all its partners.

Track Listing: Say It Isn’t So; The Very Thought of You; Pretty Lady; Come Rain or Come Shine; Easy Living; Blue Monk; All Too Soon.

Personnel: Frank Wess: tenor saxophone, flute; Kenny Barron: piano; Kenny Davis: bass; Winard Harper: drums.

Title: Magic 101 | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: IPO Recordings

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