Frank Wess, sterling saxophone star of the classic Fifties Count Basie Band, leads a relaxed date eponymous to his chosen band size on this recent Original Jazz Classics reissue. The Moodsville tag should give fairly solid indication of what’s in store. Six standards and an original fill out the set list with an emphasis on balmy ballad tempos and laidback blowing. The rhythm section, headed by the eloquent and elegant Tommy Flanagan, an ideal foil for this sort of session, supplies Wess with sensitive support throughout. Fellow Basie employee Eddie Jones tactfully handles bass duties and Bobby Donaldson keeps things simmering on drums. Engineer Rudy Van Gelder crisply renders each of the players from his controls, though the NYC location listed on the tray card suggests a studio setting outside his usual Hackensack digs.
Wess divides his instrumental choices fairly evenly between his signature saxophone and lilting flute, with three tunes falling under the spell of his lush, Lester Young-tinged tenor and four serving as vehicles for his fluttery wind instrument. The tunes undertaken with the latter, especially the opening dreamlike “It’s So Peaceful in the Country,” tend toward a more cloying soporific sound with gilded piano chords, gentle pizzicato bass and swishing brushes coming off a bit pallid despite some gorgeous playing. The tracks employing Wess’s tenor strike a better balance between tranquility and swing. “Rainy Afternoon,” a Wess original and the longest tune at nearly eight and half minutes, floats in on the plush aerated back of the leader’s velvety riffing horn. Donaldson’s brushes pick up the pace and Jones tugs out a fat walking line as Flanagan comps in a sparse, but lyrical style. As the track rolls on and Wess’s solo gains momentum he even engages in a string emphatic exclamations, a few sparks struck in an otherwise demulcent outing.
Other peaks in a program of relatively few valleys include a plush reading of “Stella By Starlight,” again featuring Wess’s verdant tenor, which spills out across the melody like a voluptuous woman stretching out on a bed of flocculent furs; and a soothing interpretation of Burke and Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful” that builds from a polished solo preface by Flanagan into another spotlight for the leader’s smooth-spoken flute. Overall, this album takes its Moodsville pedigree a bit too seriously with an even keel philosophy that at times comes at the expense of some heat and flavor. That caveat stated, fans of relaxed blowing dates will probably find the easy peregrinations of Wess and company more than amicable.
The world of jazz is a musical space with a complex history and haunting appeal--a space to revisit and celebrate. It’s that
amazing moment when you hear a really great song you haven't heard in years and you still know the tune and every word.