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Frank Wess: Magic 201

Karl Ackermann By

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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, Count Basie and Clark Terry. 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, Hank Jones, John Pizzarelli and Toshiko Akiyoshi among others. Pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Rufus Reid 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 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 and Johnny Griffin. 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'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.

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

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