Friday, November 1, 2013

Frank Wess (1922-2013)

Just a couple years younger than Charlie Parker, and also faring from Kansas City, Frank Wess was one of those excellent musicians poorly served by tags like "mainstream" or "bop". He was a member of the Basie orchestra for a long time. Apparently an unassuming man, it was our loss that he wasn't seen under the spotlight more often. Wess passed away on October 30, aged 91.

Jazz for Playboys (Savoy/Denon SV-0191)
Never mind the official hierarchies of jazz, Wess was one of the first tenor sax players I encountered in jazz (before Coltrane or Coleman Hawkins, for instance). He was also my first flutist, the only one I knew for some time, which may explain why I couldn't understand some of my colleagues' disliking the instrument. Guess I was just lucky.

It was by sheer coincidence that a local shop had bucketloads of Japanese Savoy/Denon CDs at discount price. At a time when I mulled over the purchase of one CD for a very long time, I don't know what made me choose this record without listening to it. Not the cover, obviously. It wasn't the title either (believe me).

The album was Jazz for Playboys, Savoy Jazz SV-0191, released in 1992 by Nippon Columbia. The personnel included Wess, fellow Basie-ites Joe Newman on trumpet, Freddie Green on guitar, Eddie Jones on bass, and Gus Johnson (on one session) on drums, plus Kenny Burrell on guitar too. This rare two-guitar, pianoless combination, together with Wess's flute, makes the music light as a feather. Incidentally, these sessions are ideal to appreciate the work of the unique Freddie Green on acoustic rhythm guitar. There's at least a precedent to this two-guitar, no piano combo, the various editions of the Basie-ite but Basie-less Kansas City Five or Six from the late 1930s, with Green as the common link.

I've had a look around, and Wess, Burrell, and Green did more tracks for Savoy than just the ones on ... Playboys. See below for all the tracks they did on Spotify, and enjoy the flute and tenor sax of Frank Wess.

PS (15Dec2016) about the importance of listening carefully: it's taken me over twenty years to notice that, on the last track from the last session included here, "Pin Up", there are no drums. Given that it was the last tune recorded that day, it's likely that Gus Johnson had to leave early; the result: a rare pianoless and drumless quartet of flute, two guitars, and double bass.

Playlist on YouTube (link).

Playlist on Spotify:


Frank Wess (flute); Kenny Burrell, Freddie Green (guitar); Eddie Jones (bass); Kenny Clarke (drums).
Recording by Rudy Van Gelder in Hackensack, NJ, 
June 20, 1956
    69230   Wess Side
    69231   Kansas City Side
    69232   East Wind
    69233   Over The Rainbow
    69234   Southern Exposure

Note: As far as I know, the alternative take of "Southern Exposure" on the Spotify playlist was released for the first time ever on the 2002 reissue of Jazz for Playboys (Savoy Jazz SVY-17088).

Same, but add Joe Newman on trumpet; Frank Wess also plays tenor; Ed Thigpen is on drums.
Recording by Rudy Van Gelder in Hackensack, NJ, 
December 26, 1956
  SJN6922   Playboy 
  SJN6923   Miss Blues 
  SJN6924   Low Life

Newman out; Gus Johnson is on drums (except on *).
Recording by Rudy Van Gelder in Hackensack, NJ, 
January 5, 1957
  SFW6925   Baubles, Bangles And Beads
  SFW6926   Blues For A Playmate
  SFW6927   Woolafunt's Lament
  SFW6928   Monday Stroll
  SFW6929   Pin Up*

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