Tenor and alto saxophonist, flautist, composer, selfless mentor.  Just some of the impressions you got at St. Peter’s Lutheran.  We were there for the appreciation of the late Frank Wess‘ contributions not only to jazz but to humanity; Frank left us late in 2013.  The date of the memorial was significant: it was on the celebration of  his 92nd birthday, January 4, 2014.

Organized for the family by his friends and colleagues Jimmy Owens and Jerry Dodgion, the parade of players and limited talking heads showered us with Wess’ love for the music he gave us along with his quietly ebullient personality.  The appreciative throng packed the church to SRO.

Host Dennis Mackrel opened the proceedings with fellow drummers Winard Harper and Akira Tana, a fanfare of a different sort.  “Video Guy” Bret Primack presented an interview of Frank with Dr. Billy Taylor playing Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”  But it wasn’t until the music began in earnest that the warmth of Frank Wess shone through.  His was the softer solo attack on sax in the “New Testament” Basie Band of the 1950′s with Frank Foster the harder. (metal mouthpiece?)  His flute soloing rose to the surface during that period.  Frank was always quick to point out in interviews that his flute improvisations were not the first in jazz just the longest lasting and the more important in leading the parade of flute players who followed.  So sustained that it is still casting influential shadows.

The parade of jazz luminaries and the people Wess touched followed.  Most tunes were by Wess except where noted.  Terell Stafford, trumpet, Lew Tabackin, tenor sax, Michael Weiss, piano, Rufus Reid, bass, and Tana were the “Frank Wess Quintet” playing “Backfire.”  Joe Temperley, baritone sax and Kenny Barron, piano, offered a sumptuous Ellington “The Single Petal Of a Rose” to sustained applause.  An septet (billed as a nonet) was led by multi-reed specialist Scott Robinson on bari, Ted Nash, tenor, Stafford, Weiss, Steve Turrre, trombone, Nuriko Ueda, bass, and Mackrel did “Small Talk.”  Robinson turned to a cappella bass flute for Kenny Burrell’s “Listen To The Dawn.”

An octet made up of Robinson, Nash, Frank Greene, trumpet,, Stafford, Turre, Richard Wyands, piano, Peter Washington, bass and Mackrel played one of  my favorite Wess titles “Tryin’ To Make My Blues Turn Green.”  Antonio Hart’s alto was on for “Ménage à Bleu” as were Ilya Lushtak, guitar, Tal Ronen, bass, Tadataka Unno, piano and Harper.  Save for Hart and Harper excellent new-comer voices.  Between Owens and Weiss (Wess’ “Placitude”) and Jimmy Heath, tenor, and Barron (the standard “Easy Living”) came Duke’s “Cottontail,” a jam-my trib to Wess by “The Joy Of Sax”: arranger Dodgion and Steve Wilson, altos, Doug Lawrence and Dan Block, tenors, Jay Branford, bari, and a rhythm section of Wyands, Reid and Mackrel.  A mighty swinger very much in the spirit of the honoree.

There were warm, loving tributes by Todd Barkan and Larry Ridley.  An unannounced Wynton Marsalis was joined by Barron for a moving moment on the Gershwin standard “Embraceable You.”

The Basie Band led by trumpeter Scotty Barnhart concluded this love-fest with Wess’ “Half Moon Street,” and his ” Segue In C.”  The band obligingly played the family request for Fos’ “Shiny Stockings.”  No one minded.

Oh, the “Magic” in the above title refers to Wess’ late-in-life sobriquet and the title of two of his last CDs.  It was, disappointingly, not played.

© January 2014 by arnold jay smith

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