Frank Wess was a busy man in the 1960s. Along with juggling roles as Count Basie’s chief tenor and sessions as a sideman he was also fortunate enough to secure plentiful dates as a leader. In each setting his tenor was allowed room to move, but it was on his own gigs where his powers were put to most expansive use. The two albums combined on this disc highlight two Wess-fronted ensembles: a large eight-piece unit colored with a Latin hue compliments of Barretto’s congas, Johnson’s drums and an acknowledged timbales player, and forward-thinking swing quintet populated by a few of his peers with the Basie Band.
On the first album Oliver Nelson’s authoritative tenor joins Wess along with the lesser known Aarons and Barrow in the front line. The horns are afforded the majority of solo space, and while they share the same instrument Nelson’s coarser toned reed is easily distinguishable from the leader’s more sophisticated sound. Nelson also handles the arrangements and his charts allow an unusual amount of space for the augmented rhythm section. Even the old pop standard “Blue Skies” is saturated with some spicy percussion breaks. Conversely “Summer Frost” flirts with sentimental exotica and never seems to rise beyond a feathery bathos, but the band rekindles a forward momentum on a zesty reading of “Dancing In the Dark.”
Date number two settles into a blues-tinged bag and gives Wess added space for his well-lauded flute. He favors the instrument on the final five tracks making for an interesting match with Jones muted brass on pieces like “Little Me.” Haynes works his usual rhythmic magic behind his kit while Mahones and Catlett keep things cantering from their respective corners. Haynes commands attention on “Yo-Ho” turning in some fantastic breaks between Jones muted choruses while Mahones is at the lyrical center of “Poor You.” Overall these are an enjoyable pair of outings from a player who cut many respectable, if not instantly classic sessions during the 60s. The fact that Wess recorded so frequently and came away with a catalog that still withstands the test of time is testament both to his talent and his desire to spread his music to as many ears as possible. Listeners with tastes favoring successful marriages of bop and swing will uncover much to their liking on this generously packed collection.