Follow-up albums are sort of like movie sequels. If the original was well-received and successful, the sequel is often disappointing because it's just more of the same and probably not as well done. But occasionally a follow-up comes along that not only includes a lot of what made the original good, but adds new elements to try to make it better.
That would be the case for Hank and Frank II, a new release from veteran jazz pros Hank Jones and Frank Wess, now out on the Lineage Records label. It's a follow-up to the 2006 acclaimed Hank and Frank, and again stars accomplished pianist Jones and his buddy Wess, who is a solid performer on both sax and flute. They've again enlisted drummer Mickey Roker and bassist John Webber (who also acts as producer), but this time around the group showcases a couple of guests. Russian/American guitarist Ilya Lushtak was actually part of the crew on the first album but is more prominently featured on this effort, while vocalist Marion Cowings adds a new dimension to the group's sound.
Bringing a talented guitarist to the forefront of a jazz group is usually a smart move, and Lushtak's influence is felt on several of the best pieces here, including one he brought to the group, "Lord Prepare Me." It's just one of a number of good instrumentals that explore everything from old standards like "For All We Know," (one of my favorites) to the bop-influenced arrangement of "Chasing The Bird." One of Charlie Parker's best, it allows Wess to show his sax chops, as does the lush "Ill Wind," another good listen.
As for Jones, he exhibits his keyboard skills at their best on "Sunday," a great old song that also gives the other soloists plenty of space to roam. It was probably my favorite on the album.
Roughly half of the tracks feature Cowings' vocals, and although he's a polished performer and something of a long-time cult favorite to many, I thought the strength of this album was in the instrumentals. However, I did enjoy his take on "If I Were a Bell," a seldom-heard old song that is brought to life by his playful vocal.
A mixed verdict on Hank and Frank II, but most jazz fans will find a lot to like among its 15 tracks.