For those who are hung up on the notion that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”, Frank Wess’ latest IPO Recordings CD, Magic 201 offers a loudly contradictory “Yes we do!” Recorded during the same sessions that produced his brilliant previous IPO release Magic 101, the new album delivers another feast of ballads, blues and swing.
Although this music harkens back to the glorious days of Webster, Hawkins and Prez, this is not nostalgia, by any means. This is pure of-the-moment, immediate, yet timeless music in the classic tradition of jazz expression that could never be dated. Frank Wess developed his extraordinary artistry within the context of a tradition where every saxophonist prided himself on expressing a unique voice, as recognizable as his own face. That voice is the heart and soul of this truly outstanding CD, recorded in 2011 at the age of 89. Returning from Magic 101 are pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Winard Harper, joined this time by bassist Rufus Reid and Russell Malone on guitar. The selections include five ballads, a blues and two easy swingers comprised of five standards, a Roland Hanna piece and two Wess originals.
An exceptional flautist – definitively demonstrated on one track – Wess plays tenor throughout the remainder of the album, fully living up to the Magic of the title, and his nickname. Never a wasted note or a cliché in his musical choices, every note is crafted so artfully and thoughtfully to draw out every nuance, every iota of meaning, emotion and wisdom. His remarkable use of dynamics makes each tone expand and contract to express additional context to the vivid stories he tells with every phrase spoken through his horn. It’s the sound not just of a master artist, but a sensei, an oracle of profound information, and a master of time and space.
The supporting musicians fully understand that their roles are not to revere his mastery or even just sensitively support it. In the grand tradition of transcendent jazz, they bring every bit of their own artistry and unique personalities to the music, contributing to the whole to produce the synergy demanded by the music.
Kenny’s almost telepathic connection with Frank is fully complemented by Rufus’ absolutely unerring selections of time, space and dynamics. Winard’s sensitivity is exemplary, sometimes so understated as to almost disappear and allow the other musicians to carry the rhythmic support, only to reappear at the ideal moment with a perfectly timed punctuation. And Malone, one of the most popular contemporary guitarists, also shows he would have fit in perfectly, wearing a fedora and sharkskin suit in the classic ‘40s short Jammin’ the Blues. The addition of guitar also adds another dimension as Malone and Barron trade off comping support, allowing the other to punctuate and color as inspired.
The two swing pieces are placed as bookends. Burke and Van Heusen’s It Could Happen To You opens the album on a medium up-tempo note with fluid tenor, briskly swinging piano, jaunty guitar (with some nicely played Wes Montgomery-like octaves) and Wess and Reid trading eights. The closing track, Chaplin and Cahn’s If It’s The Last Thing I Do is an easy swinger constructed on the solid woody strutting (not just walking) bass of Reid, who also takes a meaty solo deliciously punctuated by a Wess-led blues riff.
The five ballads could serve as a how-to guide for young musicians on ballad artistry. Each piece is lovingly crafted to fit the story the song tells – fully conceived for expressive clarity and emotional depth.
Conley and Robinson’s A Cottage For Sale is an old-school ballad, evoking a late night session where the musicians are playing for themselves – and anyone else lucky enough to be there to hear them. Frank plays in tantalizing, slightly behind the beat fashion – not lagging behind but more like a shepherd leading the flock from the rear – and so deeply lyrical that he brings tears to the eyes. Frank’s original If You Can’t Call, Don’t Come is a showcase for his exploratory balladry, with a touch of the blues. There is a rubato feel in the support that creates a floating airy atmosphere, rich in emotional depth.
The Gershwins’ Embraceable You is a heart-wrenching duo with Kenny that is reminiscent of the wonderful Lester Young/Teddy Wilson collaborations. A stunning pas de deux filled with dynamic tension, interactive perfection and most importantly – pure love. Roland Hanna’s After Paris is a filigree ballad with Frank in the company of delicate guitar, lushly romantic piano and deeply expressive bass, together cascading around his tenor like a darkly lustrous mist. This gorgeous ballad was written specially for Coleman Hawkins when Sir Roland was playing with him in the ‘60s; and was never recorded by a saxophonist – until now.
Legrand and Bergman’s The Sinner Knows is an arresting tour de force for Frank’s virtuosic flute playing. With a tone so resonant and full-bodied that it often conveys the dulcet ebony of a clarinet, he tells a story so vivid and compelling that the virtuosity becomes secondary.
An entirely different and thoroughly delightful mood is created with another Wess original Blues For Ruby. An old-style medium-slow drag blues that evokes some of the immortal Gene Ammons’ blues jams of the ‘50s, Frank is in Jug-ville with a gutbucket solo full of deliciously suspended rhythms and raunchy wailing. Malone’s solo is a highlight here – in classic Grant Green/Kenny Burrell style – almost tearing some of the bent notes from his strings. Kenny, Rufus and Winard lay down the kind of bottom that would make John Lee Hooker smile broadly.
To be released on February 11, 2014