CD Review: Frank Wess - Magic 201

Frank Wess - Magic 201
(IPO IPOC1025. CD Review by Peter Vacher)

This may well be Frank Wess’s final recording. It was made in September 2011 when the ex-Basie tenorman was 89; he died last October but it’s only just come out. If it is to be his valedictory statement, then it could hardly be bettered, for Wess is in exceptional form with companions hand-picked for their empathy. Kenny Barron is on piano, as tasteful and resourceful as ever, as is guitarist Russell Malone, with bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Winard Harper completing the group.

Wess himself seems relaxed, summoning a lifetime of experience as he explores these (mostly) standards, his sound displaying only the merest signs of tremulousness. Originally inspired by Lester Young, Wess had long since carved out his own way: building a discography of noble proportions and fitting ably into a great variety of situations. Here he’s happy to set out his stall on something like Sir Roland Hanna’s attractive ballad ‘After Paris', strengthening his tone, never rushed or lost for an idea, with just Malone for company before Barron chords engagingly and Reid’s lovely bass notes anchor the interpretation. Then again, there’s his virtuosity on flute, beautifully displayed on Legrand’s affecting ‘The Summer Knows’, taken solo throughout.

So, no notes wasted, nothing contrary, just heartfelt readings of good pieces, with top-drawer contributions from his sidemen. Barron seems never to put a foot wrong, much like the late Tommy Flanagan, his innate sense of what’s right evident throughout. He’s at his best on the duet with Wess on ‘Embraceable You’, re-harmonising Gershwin’s tune elegantly before Malone comes on like an old-time bluesman on Wess’s ‘Blues For Ruby’, with the tenorist settling into raunchier mode. Why ‘Magic’, I hear you ask? It’s in tribute to Wess’s nick-name among his fellows. They knew his worth, and they were right. Superb recording quality, by the way.

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