During the week when we lost Frank Wess, it has been impossible not to keep thinking about him—and listening to him. Today’s listening was to Uptown Records’ marvelous two-CD set of Wess in his partnership with trumpeter Johnny Coles (1926-1997). Their quintet was a 1980s band that reflected trends of the previous three decades. It was a platform not only for two nonpareil horn soloists but also for rhythm sections made up of some of the music’s brightest younger players. The first disc, recorded in 1983 in Rudy Van Gelder’s famous studio, has pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Reggie Johnson and drummer Kenny Washington. It is packed with pieces by the elite among modern jazz composers; Kenny Dorham, Tadd Dameron, Gigi Gryce, Bud Powell and Benny Golson among them. In some cases, two takes of a tune give additional insights into Wess’s warmth as an improviser on tenor and alto saxophones, and into his fluency of thought and execution, which seemed to come without effort. The same may be said of Coles, who plays flugelhorn throughout. He may well have been the most under-appreciated major brass soloist of the second half of the twentieth century. This collection is an opportunity to catch up with him.
The second disc finds Wess and Coles in 1988 at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California. Their rhythm section is the estimable trio of Bay Area pianist Smith Dobson, which included the rising bassist Larry Grenadier and the veteran drummer Donald Bailey. Here, Wess also plays flute, kicking off the set with energy and humor in the Sam Jones blues “One for Amos.” He and Coles end with Buddy Montgomery’s joyful up-tempo “Blues for David.” Wess’s tenor solo has a gruff buoyancy that may reflect the spirit of his Kansas City birthplace, even though his family left there when he was eight. Coles is as daring with harmonies and phrasing as he was in his years of adventuring in Charles Mingus’s band. Between the bookend blues performances, Wess, Coles and the Dobsons revisit Gryce’s “Minority” and Rodgers Grant’s “Morning Star” from the 1983 sessions. They also perform Wess’s ballad “If You Can’t Call, Don’t Come,” in which he plays tenor sax with aching beauty of expression that inspires Coles to take to the microphone to congratulate him. None of the Yoshi’s performances was issued until late last year. How music of this quality was allowed to remain on the shelf for nearly three decades is a mystery. Uptown’s Bob Sunenblick deserves congratulations for liberating it.