By its very nature, great Jazz cannot be perfect. The essential components of improvisation, spontaneity, abandon, adventurousness, innovation and urgency produce a sense of excitement where you never know what might occur, and can provoke you to marvel at how an unexpected turn may create something wonderful. That being said, the great Frank Wess’ new CD, Magic 101 on IPO can only be properly summarized by two words: sheer perfection.
There is not a wasted note, nor an unnecessary one. Every musical decision that is made is the best possible choice. Every moment is essential, ideal, impeccably tasteful and offered within a continuity of narrative that tells a complete story as beautifully and powerfully as Raymond Chandler or Walter Mosley.
Age does not by itself create wisdom, but at the age of 89 – when this gem was recorded in 2011 – Frank Wess embodies Wisdom – with the capital W. Equally known for his brilliance on alto sax and flute (acclaimed as the first modern Jazz flautist), Frank plays tenor throughout this CD. The entire history of the heavyweight instrument is expressed through his playing, from his earliest influences of Lester Young and Ben Webster and through his own participation in Jazz at its highest form for over 70 years. And while wisdom can often be a highly valuable substance in lieu of the visceral power and virility that may diminish under the scourge of age, this is simply not the case here. Frank’s playing is as potent and full-bodied as ever; his dynamic sound so rich and evocative.
Accompanied in perfect fashion by a truly remarkable and accomplished rhythm section, prominently featuring another highly respected elder, Kenny Barron (who is still young enough to be Frank’s son) on piano, Kenny Davis and Winard Harper on bass and drums (a couple of “kids” in their 50s who bring over 60 years of highest-standard playing to the table), the sensitivity and rapport of the entire ensemble is simply stunning.
The selection of material is, well, perfect with four wonderful standards, two Jazz classics by two of the music’s foremost composers, and an original by Wess that properly belongs alongside them. Five of the pieces are ballads, a daring concept particularly because four of them are programmed consecutively. But rather than becoming even remotely repetitious, instead Magic 101 might be viewed as something of an instructional guide on how to play a ballad in every possible style without ever compromising the essence of one’s own individual voice or concept of self-expression.
Both Pres and Webster always said that they always thought about the lyrics to each song as they played and clearly Frank learned that lesson well as he spins these beautiful tales, keeping the listener enthralled by the compelling narratives, each new note and phrase offering more substance and a deeper understanding of the context of the plot and the profundity of the theme.
From the first few bars of the opening track – a medium tempo swinger of Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So – Frank’s vividly organic sound of “vocal” enunciations are so precisely stated that there is no doubt as to the details of his fascinating story. Relaxed blues is the format for the other non-ballad, Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk. Here Frank offers a deliciously syncopated solo, from gutbucket to ethereal, occasionally throwing in an Arnett Cobb-ish Texas Tenor by way of hometown Kansas City honk and horizontal vibrato. Kenny avoids obvious Monkishness, but takes his own angular path that keeps Monk in full view.
The four consecutive ballads begin with Ray Noble’s The Very Thought of You providing irrefutable evidence to the utter timelessness of Jazz expression, eliciting emotions that we will always have until our extinction. On the incredibly beautiful stating of the theme each note is so rich and packed with vital information. Kenny’s piano solo is edgily deliberate, slowly and exquisitely stated, suspended in a tantalizing manner that sometimes halts time to demand your full attention. Wess closes out with a brief and heart-wrenching solo that never re-states the theme – because it doesn’t have to; it’s just a new version of the song.
Frank’s own Pretty Lady is up next – and the first of two duets with Barron. Its filigree beauty is expressed through complex interplay, with the tenor more angular and edgier in tone, but no less drenched in emotional content and its message of love. Kenny’s unaccompanied solo is precise and percussive over left-hand chord patterns that are much akin to old-school guitar strumming. The duet on Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s Come Rain or Come Shine is a much bluesier affair. Powerfully emotive tenor over a stride-like piano builds in intensity throughout – also stoked by a starkly brilliant piano solo – never sacrificing its exquisite beauty. A brilliant tour de force and so intimate – it’s like two very close old friends steeped in wisdom, sharing a late night conversation and allowing us to eavesdrop on the profound.
The gorgeous Easy Living (Ralph Rainger & Leo Robin) is so lovely and emotional that even when cascades of notes erupt from the horn, they are perfectly placed and emotionally appropriate. A big horn-style soul ballad cooked on the fire of a most heavily sympathetic rhythm section – as it is throughout this entire recording.
The album closes on another perfect note – a solo interpretation of Duke Ellington’s All Too Soon. Astonishingly evocative, stunningly constructed, dynamically executed, it makes one think that maybe the reason Frank Wess is still so vital at 91 is because he has totally mastered the elements of time and space.
It’s often said that the greatest Jazz musicians have fascinating stories to tell through their instruments, and this CD is like an anthology of timeless tales that can be read over and over again. Magic 101 is indeed magical.