Frank Wess – Magic 101 (2013)

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Though somewhat less distinctive in his moment than Frank Foster, reedman Frank Wess has outlived his late long-time partner in the Count Basie Band — and that’s provided an opportunity to reassess his contributions, in particular on the flute.

Alas, Magic 101 — Wess’ new quartet recording, due June 11, 2013 from IPO Recordings — showcases his work on the tenor, though Wess is now rightly seen as a pioneering presence in the use of the flute as a solo jazz instrument. His sax playing, meanwhile, was always more swing-informed and steadfastly pre-bop than Foster’s. That didn’t seem to bode well for a small-group setting like Magic 101, at least on first blush. I was expecting — and even more so when I saw four consecutive ballads on the track listing — a sturdy, if often quiet reminder of Wess’ likability without much notable drama.

Instead, we find a jazz lion emboldened by his surroundings, as Wess is joined by pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper. And even within the contextual sameness of that string of slow songs, he discovers new pieces of the narrative to accentuate on tracks like “The Very Thought of You” (where he’s as inventive as he is desperately lonesome) and “Come Rain or Come Shine” (given a searing new blue tinge). Elsewhere, there are whiffs of syncopated R&B on “Blue Monk,” and a pair of thoughtful duets with Barron — including Wess’ own “Pretty Lady,” which neatly sidesteps any old-school expectations with these angular bursts.

Wess, having recaptured our imagination, then brings everyone in close for a solo recitation of Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon,” ending things on Magic 101 with a powerful reminder both of all the things he’s seen and done at 91 — and of his continuing dominion over time and space. Wess might never have sounded better.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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