Music Reviews
12:28 pm
Tue February 11, 2014

In Session: Frank Wess' 'Magic 201' Offers One Last Lesson

Originally published on Wed February 12, 2014 9:35 am

Frank Wess' new album, Magic 201, is a sequel to last year's similar helping of ballads and midtempo strollers, Magic 101. The new album is very nearly every bit as good, and made a little more poignant by Wess' death just before Halloween. On his last session as a leader in 2011, he was still sounding strong at 89.

When Wess was coming up, his hero was the dry and slippery saxophonist Lester Young, who gave him a few pointers. Wess took those lessons to heart, but cultivated a beefier sound of his own. He got his big break in the '50s when he joined Count Basie's orchestra, where he stayed for 11 years. Wess made any saxophone section sound better, and he was a trendsetting jazz flutist. After Basie, any big-band leader was happy to hire him if they could. On Magic 201, a drumless rhythm trio of guitarist Russell Malone, pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Rufus Reid slides into a cruise-control Basie groove in "If It's the Last Thing I Do."

Barron and Reid worked together with Frank Wess in the 1980s, and the full quintet has an easy rapport. (Winard Harper is on drums.) Wess plays one solo flute ballad ("The Summer Knows"), but his new album is really about his rich tenor saxophone. "Blues for Ruby" is one of those medium-slow pieces these guys could but don't play in their sleep. Wess' solo mixes fresh phrases with licks he's played a thousand times, and he still imbues it with feeling and musical meaning. That is no little thing.

Nowadays, we have ample evidence that playing jazz keeps the mind and body nimble, given all the musicians in their 80s and up who still sound good. But we are running out of saxophonists whose styles were formed before John Coltrane's harder sound took over. There is something tender and specific about the ways elders like Frank Wess shaped their notes that's hard for younger musicians to evoke without anachronisms creeping in. That's one reason music lovers love their records: Even after the masters are gone, their sound is right here with us.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess passed away in October at age 91, he had one last album due for release. That record is now out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC, "AFTER PARIS")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Frank Wess on "After Paris," the tune he used to play with the New York Jazz Quartet. Wess' history is threaded all through his album "Magic 201." It's a sequel to last year's similar helping of ballads and mid-tempo strollers, "Magic 101." The new album is just about very nearly every bit as good and made a little more poignant by Wess' passing just before Halloween. In his last session as a leader in 2011, he was still sounding strong at 89.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Frank Wess with Bernard Harper on drums. Wess' hero coming up was the dry and slippery saxophonist Lester Young who gave him a few pointers. Wess took those lessons to heart but cultivated a beefier sound of his own. He got his big break in the '50s when he joined Count Basie's orchestra. He stayed 11 years. Wess made any saxophone section sound better and he was a trendsetting jazz flutist. After Basie, any big band leader was happy to hire him if they could.

On "Magic 201" a drumless rhythm trio slides into a cruise control Basie groove on "If It's the Last Thing I Do." That's Russell Malone on guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC, "IF IT'S THE LAST THING I DO")

WHITEHEAD: Pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Rufus Reid worked with Frank Wess in the 1980s and the full quintet has an easy rapport. Wess plays one solo flute ballad, but his new album is really about his rich tenor saxophone. "Blues for Ruby" is a medium-slow one these guys could, but don't, play in their sleep. Wess' solo mixes fresh phrases with licks he's played a thousand times and still imbues with feeling and musical meaning. That is no little thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC, "BLUES FOR RUBY")

WHITEHEAD: Nowadays we have ample evidence that playing jazz keeps the mind and body nimble, given all the musicians in their 80s and up who still sound good. But we are running out of saxophonists whose styles were formed before John Coltrane's harder sound took over. There is something tender and specific about the ways elders like Frank Wess shape their notes that's hard for younger musicians to evoke without anachronisms creeping in. That's one reason music lovers love their records - even after the masters are gone their sound is right here with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and eMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Magic 201," the final album by saxophonist Frank Wess who died in October at the age of 91. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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