Virtually everything recorded by tenor saxophonist Frank Wess is worth hearing—and that’s saying something. Best known for his rock-solid playing along side Frank Foster in Count Basie’s band from 1953 to 1964, Wess’ solos always sound tough and tender, which is what makes them so compelling.
Wess also was among the first musicians to turn the flute into a swinging jazz instrument, and his writing for the Basie band and small groups were carefully crafted and hugely energetic.
After playing in the bands of Billy Eckstine (1946), Eddie Heywood (1946), Lucky Millinder (1947) and Bull Moose Jackson (1948-49), Wess studied the flute intensively with two classical music teachers. During this period he also played tenor on a handful of recordings backing other artists before joining Count Basie’s band in August 1953.
Throughout the 1950s, Wess helped drive and shape the Basie band as a player and arranger. When Basie wasn’t touring or recording, Wess recorded frequently as a leader and sideman in small groups. While Wess could swing with confidence on top of a band chart, he also could modify his style in small groups without compromising the yearning and poetry of his sound.
Perhaps the best of his non-Basie dates of the 1950s were made for Commodore Records in 1954. They were his first record dates as a leader, and the tracks show off Wess’ proficiency on both tenor and flute. You also can hear his ambition to make a name for himself in the perfection of every number.
The first of his leadership dates for Commodore was recorded on May 8, 1954. Appearing as the Frank Wess Quintet, the group included Wess on tenor and flute, Henry Coker on trombone, Jimmy Jones on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Osie Johnson on drums. For some reason Benny Powell replaced Coker on a three of the seven tracks recorded that day.
The next Wess-led Commodore session was recorded on August 12. This time Wess fronted the Frank Wess Sextet, featuring Wess on tenor and flute, Joe Wilder on trumpet, Henry Coker on trombone and the same rhythm section as the May date, with Urbie Green subbing for Coker on four tracks.
What makes these Commodore sessions so special are Wess’ song writing skills, the compact arrangements and his blowing. All of the charts are tightly executed, which is a testament to Wess’ insistence on intensive rehearsals prior to recording. A look at the matrix numbers show that most of the tracks were nailed in the first and second takes, with an occasional third, and the alternates are as good as the masters.
What’s more, Wess’ flute playing on these dates demonstrate that the orchestral instrument could swing if played with the right feel and authority. Writes Stanley Dance in The World of Count Basie (1980): “There can be no doubt that the [flute’s] acceptance and popularity were very much due to [Wess’] presentation as a flute soloist in the Basie band.”
Count Basie dates Frank Wess’ first flute solo in the band to late December 1953. Said Basie in Good Morning Blues (1985):
“Frank was an excellent flute player, but he had been with us for a little while before I found that out. Don Redman hipped me to him. We were uptown playing a gig somewhere, and Don came by and asked me how Frank was doing, and he said, ‘Has he played anything on the flute for you yet?’ And I said, ‘Well I didn’t know about that.’ And Don said, ‘Why don’t you try him?’
So one day at the Savoy we were doing a jam and I told Frank, ‘Why don’t you take a couple of choruses on your flute? Did you bring your flute?’
And he looked surprised. ‘Do you really want me to?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Take a couple and see what happens.’
So he went out there and played and broke it up, and as soon as I hear him, that was when I realized that we had a new thing to go back down into Birdland with [on New Year’s Eve]. So that’s how the flute thing started, because it seemed to me that it excited just about everybody that came down here…Frank Wess is the man who really brought the flute into the jazz scene beginning right down there in Birdland.”
Wess recorded many albums throughout the 1950s for a wide range of labels. All are superb. But to me, the Commodore sessions remain standout examples of Wess’ prowess as a composer, arranger, leader, tenor player and flutist.
Wax tracks: Long available only as an Atlantic LP and then part of a Commodore CD box from Mosaic Records, Frank Wess’ Commodore sessions (including work in 1954 under the leadership of Thad Jones) are available on Fresh Sounds as Frank Wess: The Commodore Recordings. The CD can be found here.
What’s remarkable about these dates is that the music Wess recorded sounds two or three years ahead of its time. The date was 1954, but if you were blindfolded and asked to guess the year in which they were recorded, you’d probably say 1956 or 1957.
In addition to Wess’ rich playing on ballads and peppery attacks on up-tempo numbers, pianist Jimmy Jones throws off stardust, providing Wess with a perfectly lovely background. The contrast between Jones’ twinkling ideas and Wess’ sharp lines make for an exciting combination.
Re-listening to the recordings (I own the LP), I couldn’t help but notice that Wess’ approach on both tenor and flute sounds more like that of a singer than an instrumentalist. Fascinating stuff.
Wax videoclip: After being discharged from the Army in 1945, Frank Wess’ first recording date was with Billy Eckstine’s band in 1946. Fortunately the Eckstine band of 1946 made a film called Rhythm in a Riff. Frank Wess not only is on the date but he solos brilliantly.