Magic 101, the new release from 91-years young saxophonist Frank Wess recorded when he was a callow youth of 89, is convincing evidence that, like the poet says, old age has still its uses. Though we are no longer what we have been, much remains and what remains, at least in the case of Frank Wess, is worth a lot more than some of the stuff turned out by many a younger musician.
Musicians grow old and they lose some of their manual dexterity, some of their stamina, but what they don’t necessarily lose are the years of experience and the knowledge gained from that experience. Sure there are those who hang around past the sell-by date, but listen to 86-year-old Dick Hyman (playing with singer Heather Masse), listen to 87-year-old Bucky Pizzarelli (playing with singer Alex Pangman), and see if you can tell how old they are. These guys could play in their 40s and they can play in their 80s and with some luck and good health, they’ll be around to play in their 90s.
Some musicians age well. Frank Wess is one of those. He plays with an undiminished dynamism and creative energy. He knows his instrument. He understands what he can do with it, and he does it with style. Admittedly, if what you’re looking for is far out experimentalism, you won’t find it on this album, but if you want straight-ahead jazz influenced by the likes of Lester Young and honed by years playing with the Count Basie Orchestra, Magic 101 hits the bull’s eye.
Although Wess is an acclaimed flautist and also plays alto sax, he limits himself to tenor on this album. Kenny Barron joins him on piano, and rounding out the quartet are bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper. It is a tight ensemble that works well together although more often than not focusing the attention of Wess’ horn.
The album’s program blends selections from the Great American Songbook, some jazz standards, and one Wess original. Five of the seven tunes are ballads. They open with a medium-tempo swinger, Irving Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So,” and toward the end of the set they add some blues, Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” to complete the program. Between the two you have four ballads: “The Very Thought of You,” a bluesy take on the classic “Come Rain or Come Shine,” a passionate version of “Easy Living,” and a sweet visit to the Wess original, “Pretty Lady” (with a stand out solo from Barron). The album closes with Wess doing a tightly constructed solo version of Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon.” If you wondered about the old man’s chops, this is a solo that will put your mind at ease.
Indeed, if Magic 101 is any indication, there is plenty of life in the old man yet.