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Frank Wess: Magic 201

Dan Bilawsky By

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What a wonderful coda on an incredible life and career. Saxophonist/Flautist Frank Wess' final recordings—the critically acclaimed Magic 101 (IPO, 2013) and this follow-up, recorded two months after that album—speak to his brilliance and clarity as a melody maker and improviser. His wisdom and elegance come through in every note on both recordings.

The titles of both albums rightly mark them as companion pieces and close relatives, so here's how they stack up side-by-side: Both albums favor ballads, highlight the easy rapport between Wess and pianist Kenny Barron, and focus on Wess' tenor work; his flute remains untouched on the first album and is only used once here, on a haunting solo rendition of "The Summer Knows." The first of the two efforts was a quartet date that pared things down in a few places and this one is a quintet date that does the same. Guitarist Russell Malone is the new ingredient here, bassist Rufus Reid now occupies the spot that belonged to Kenny Davis on Magic 101, and Barron and drummer Winard Harper are along for both rides. That's it in a nutshell.

In the end, if keeping a scorecard, Magic 101 would win out, mostly on the strength of Wess' own solo statements. But scorecards are for baseball, not jazz, and stacking these records side-by-side undercuts the importance of Magic 201; it proves to be a fine record when viewed on its own.

Wess starts off with a comfy-and-classic swinger ("It Could Happen To You") but quickly pulls things back and begins to explore the ins-and-outs of ballads. Five of the eight tracks on the album fall under that heading, with "After Paris," the aforementioned "The Summer Knows" and his own "If You Can't Call, Don't Come" proving to be the best of the bunch. The remaining tracks speak to his easy going relationship with the blues ("Blues For Ruby") and his ability to glide over a buoyant- and-solid walking bass line ("If It's The Last Thing I Do").

Getting what you expected is often seen as anti-climactic but that's not the case with Magic 201; getting what you expected here—from the late, great Frank Wess—is getting a musical gift from above.

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.

Title: Magic 201 | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: IPO Recordings

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