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.