Frank Wess – Magic 201 – IPO Recordings

by | Dec 23, 2013 | Jazz CD Reviews

Frank Wess – Magic 201 – IPO Recordings IPOC1023, 51:21 *****:

(Frank Wess – tenor sax and flute; Kenny Barron – piano; Russell Malone – guitar; Rufus Reid – bass; Winard Harper – drums)

When the legendary tenor saxophonist and flautist passed away on Oct. 13, 2013, jazz music lost a giant, who had gone through the evolution of America’s indigenous gift to the world for over seven decades. His previous release, Magic 101, issued in the summer of 2013 (reviewed here 6/12/13) received a Five Star review.

In the review I jokingly mentioned that my only disappointment in reviewing the CD was the fact that Wess played tenor only, and not the flute for which he is equally famous. I mentioned, in jest, that maybe they were saving flute for a Magic 201 issue in the future. (I felt that this was doubtful as Frank passed away on Oct. 30, 2013, just a few months later, at age 91.)

Well, voila, and lo and behold, there is a Magic 201 on the horizon. It both has Wess on flute (on one track), but also includes Russell Malone, on electric guitar, to bring even more luster to the project. Recorded during the same period of Magic 101, in 2011, when Frank was still a sprightly 89 years old, it has more of the same Wess brilliance as the prior release.

Like its predecessor, it is made up primarily of standards with the inclusion of two Wess originals, “Blues for Ruby” and “If You Can’t Call, Don’t Come.” On this session, in addition to the inclusion of Russell Malone, Rufus Reid substitutes for Kenny Davis, certainly not a step down. Kenny Barron is back, as is the vastly underrated, drummer, Winard Harper, who seldom leaves his East coast base (such a shame..)

Once again we find Wess still in prime form. His sensuous tone is fully intact on the tenor, and his flute mastery, unfortunately still a “tease” is found on only one track, “The Summer Knows.” I would have preferred more of his full-bodied flute emoting (but let’s not get greedy) when we are getting more aural treats.

This new issue features five ballads, a blues, and two mainstream swingers. What is most evident as on his last release, is Wess’ use of time and mood. Like the masters, Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Johnny Hodges, Wess “massages” the melody, and plays just the proper amount of notes, while throwing in “witticisms” at the appropriate time. Listening to Frank, it is so easy to hear that he is a master “storyteller” and as such, fully comfortable and able to set the proper mood for each tune. He shows his mastery of the ballad, his feel for the blues, and his ability to turn up the heat when it is called for.

The inclusion of Malone on the guitar helps “flesh out the sound” with fills that complement the statements that Frank is making. Kenny Barron is spot on as an accompanist (such as he would do for a veteran vocalist). Rufus Reid is rock solid on a woody toned bass, and Winard Harper is a most sympathetic drummer, never showy behind the master, but ready to fill in drum accents. He has been one of my favorite drummers for years, wise beyond his years, and content to be a team player in a setting like this.

Highlights are numerous. The opening track is a bit up-tempo with Barron lightly stirring the pot and Malone’s well recorded choruses adding some spice. Wess and Reid have an exchange, two pros having a “conversation.” “A Cottage for Sale” defines an old school sensuous ballad. Frank’s tenor seems to drip with “honey.” “After Paris” written by Roland Hanna, has the feel of a late night intimate club setting with an appreciative audience lost in their thoughts sipping their favorite libation. Barron’s work here shows profound sensitivity.

The flute feature follows and Wess is center stage alone, playing upper register lines that dance and float as they cascade before dissolving. If they had to have only flute track, this is “it.” The Gershwin chestnut, “Embraceable You” is a duet with Barron. Nothing needs to be said here, the music speaks for itself. The two self-penned originals follow, and the first one is a blues with Malone teaming with Wess on an old school slow blues right out of a 50s Prestige jam. The latter, another blues, finds Wess in his element, something you’d find on a Wess feature on a Basie small group session.

Like the opening track, the closer, “If It’s the Last Thing I Do” is an easygoing swinger, with Rufus Reid strongly featured and the leader having some blues riffs.

Just like the first Magic issue, this latest is pure bliss. It would be such a special treat if there was enough material for a third issue, with a dream request for a few more flute tracks. But let’s not get too greedy…

TrackList: It Could Happen to You, A Cottage for Sale, After Paris, The Summer Knows, Embraceable You, Blues for Ruby, If You Can’t Call, Don’t Come, If It’s the Last Thing I Do

—Jeff Krow

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