Zan Stewart/The Star-Ledger: Frank Wess, 87, is master of many jazz styles

Frank Wess, 87, is master of many jazz styles

by Zan Stewart/The Star-Ledger

Wednesday May 13, 2009, 2:25 PM

Frank Wess leads the Frank Wess Nonet at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City Tuesday.

Frank Wess’ Celebration Nonet. When: Tonight through Sunday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Where: Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Fifth Floor, Time Warner Center, Broadway at 60th Street, New York. How much: $35 music charge, $5-$10 minimum. Call (212) 258-9595 or visit

NEW YORK — In jazz parlance, tenor saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess is “somethin’ else.”

On one hand, he is the “pinnacle of elegance” — as his Celebration Nonet trombonist Luis Bonilla put it so aptly after the band’s first set Tuesday at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Wess demonstrated this facet repeatedly with his sumptuous lyricism on all manner of material.

On another, he is a down-home character who can swing like there’s no tomorrow, can play the blues with hearty grit, can write band parts that stand up and shout. These aspects were also regularly in view Tuesday.

The consistently vigorous Wess, 87, is a swing-to-bebop master, a jazz great who helped introduce flute to the modern realm. He’s also a tenor saxophone powerhouse who played and wrote his way to major league status with Count Basie from 1953-1964.

Wess just released “Once is Not Enough” (Labeth), a Nonet CD, and he brought a first-rate band to Dizzy’s to, indeed, celebrate.

Burton Lane’s “Come Back to Me” was an appropriately brisk opener. Wess arranged it for his 1993 Concord Jazz CD, “Tryin’ to Make My Blues Turn Green”; the set also included the title track and Teaneck saxophonist and flutist Scott Robinson’s “Night Lights.”

The beguiling “Come Back” theme, based on three-note phrases, had a vibrant 1950s modern swing feeling via Wess. In between the horn parts, Jersey City drum whiz Winard Harper added zesty commentary.

The leader soloed first, issuing one inventive thought after another with a colorful, singing tone and unshakeable rhythm. He displayed his deep knowledge of tenor innovator Lester Young — his primary influence — and Young’s disciple, Charlie Parker, in phrases that included chords turned inside out, fluid melodic items, and more.

Trumpeter Greg Gisbert, with a brilliant tone, and Robinson, on tenor with a Young-like sound, were also impressive with their mix of engaging remarks. A spiffy, robust band chorus added texture and interest.

Wess’ version of Gus Arnheim’s “Sweet and Lovely,” from the new CD, was initially voiced for two flutes and tenor saxophone, with brass interjections. With trombone then added to the frontline mix, another compelling lead sound resulted.

On flute, the leader coaxed forth a full yet breathy sound and offered a series of melodic gems. Ted Nash, also on flute, followed with alluring statements that ranged from funky to modern, then flutist Robinson, with more winsome expressions.

The medium fast “You Made a Good Move,” also from “Once,” included another Wess improv that was song-like through and through. Here, Bonilla told enticing stories with a big, gleaming sound, and, after a band shout chorus led by trumpeter Frank Greene, bassist Peter Washington soloed with his consummate taste and spot-on time feel.

Wess revealed his ballad artistry on his original, “If You Can’t Come, Don’t Call,” working with just pianist Michael Weiss, Washington, and Harper. The leader told his majestic story with sumptuous lines, as Washington dropped in complementary tidbits, and Weiss comped deftly.

Wess’ rollicking “Tryin'” was driven by Harper’s backbeat and showcased the leader’s ardent blues acumen. Robinson’s “Night Lights” sported the rich blend of alto clarinet and flute.

Zan Stewart is the Star-Ledger’s jazz writer. He is also a musician who occasionally performs at local clubs. He may be reached at or at (973) 324-9930.