Veteran Tenor Saxophonist Frank Wess was 89 when he recorded Magic 101 that has just been issued on IPO Recordings. On this he is accompanied by another jazz veteran, the remarkable Kenny Barron piano along with bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper. With this superb band, Wess weaves his magic (a bad pun but it is Wess' nickname) over a program of standards, mostly ballads.
From the opening moments of Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So, to the last lingering notes of Duke Ellington’s All Too Soon, Wess plays with warmth and imagination while Barron mixes deft restraint with energetic solos while Davis and Harper deftly push things along. Harper is especially wonderful with his use of brushes at times as well as pushing things along crisply when appropriate. But Wess is the heart and soul of the music here. Both Lester Young and Ben Webster, two of his main influences, always thought about the lyrics of the songs they played, and on the lovely The Very Thought of You, Wess shows just how well he learned this lesson. Harper’s deft cymbal work embellishes Barron’s lovely solo here as well.
Wess’ own Pretty Lady is a lovely ballad followed an exquisite rendition of Come Rain or Come Shine. After another lovely reworking of a standard, Easy Living, Barron provides a bit of sophisticated blues piano to introduce Blue Monk, with Wess’ tenor contributing to the late hours feel of a blues-drenched performance of this jazz classic. The set closes with an unaccompanied rendition of Duke Ellington’s All Too Soon, which the Duke wrote as a feature for Ben Webster, that exhibits the full breadth of the warmth and tone of Frank Wess.
Bret Primark entitled an upload of Wess performing Lush Life with his Washington DC high school classmate, the late Dr. Billy Taylor, “When Frank Wess Plays a Ballad, Ben Webster Smiles.” The wonderful Magic 101 has much that will make us (and would make Ben Webster) smile.