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Frank Wess: Magic 201

Jack Bowers By

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The cover of the late Frank Wess' final album, Magic 201, closely resembles that of its predecessor, Magic 101—so much so that a reviewer who didn't look closely enough might assume he'd been sent a second copy of the earlier album by mistake. (Oops!) Wess recorded Magic 201 in September 2011, two months after Magic 101 and less than four months before his ninetieth birthday. The format is roughly the same—emphasis on ballads and medium-tempo blues, Wess relying heavily on the tenor sax (he does play flute on one number, Michel Legrand's "The Summer Knows")—albeit with slightly different personnel. Pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Winard Harper return from Magic 101, while bassist Rufus Reid replaces Kenny Davis and guitarist Russell Malone is added to enlarge the group from quartet to quintet.

Even though the tone is a tad heavier and the phrasing more precise, there's a lot of late-season Lester Young in Wess' melancholy tenor solos (listen, for example, to the Gershwin brothers' "Embraceable You"). Clearly, Wess also subscribed to Young's philosophy that when it comes to irrepressible improvising, less is often better than more—as long as every note is essential. With Wess and Prez now gone, one can surely say that an era has passed. As for the flute, Wess has always been an acknowledged master of that instrument, an opinion he readily affirms with his graceful unaccompanied rendition of "The Summer Knows." Elsewhere, the tenor carries the day, and while tempos are for the most part subdued, Wess shows on the buoyant opener, Johnny Burke / Jimmy Van Heusen's "It Could Happen to You," that the penchant to swing (as he did so often as a member of the Count Basie orchestra) was undimmed to the end.

While praising Wess, and deservedly so, due credit must be given to his exemplary supporting cast. To begin with, any instrumentalist who says he wouldn't want Kenny Barron in his rhythm section should have his veracity checked, as he may be deluding himself and others. Whether soloing or comping, Barron is simply one of the best at what he does. Reid and Harper are similarly inventive, while Malone's talents are most welcome, especially on a pair of compositions by Wess, "Blues for Ruby" and "If You Can't Call, Don't Come." Completing the program are Sir Roland Hanna's "After Paris" and the standard "A Cottage for Sale."

Frank Wess died on October 30, 2013, roughly two years after Magic 201 was recorded. If that is to seal his legacy (alongside the earlier Magic 101), a more inspiring epilogue could scarcely be envisioned. Wess was a consummate musician who pursued his dream to the very end.

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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