Recent Listening: Wess And Coles

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 Frank Wess, Johnny Colessections 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.

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  1. says

    That’s been one of my favorites since it first appeared. I’ll play some music from it and other Wess records from mid-50s Basie to his last CD “Magic 101″ on Jazz After Hours tonight.

  2. David says

    I whole-heartedly agree with all of the above, except for the mystery part. It’s is, perhaps, a testament to the creative spirit that the supply of great jazz produced is disproportionate to the demand. (Although the massive demand for bad pop music remains mysterious.) I’m frequently reading about allegedly great recordings that were never issued or never reissued. The recent releases by Uptown are encouraging, with this one being possibly the best so far. I have some reason to believe that the label may be sitting on a few more gems.

    Budd Johnson’s final recording, in collaboration with Phil Woods, was only briefly out on LP. It has been enthusiastically praised by Scott Yanow, among others.

    Don Joseph was a quiet lyrical trumpet player, a kindred spirit of his close friend, Tony Fruscella. I had been reading about him for years and he had been described as having never recorded except as part of a trumpet section. Then a wonderful Chuck Wayne reissue came out with some beautiful solos by Joseph and some nice youtube videos surfaced of the trumpeter in his later years. Recently I discovered that he actually did record an album as a leader, for Uptown. I don’t know how successful the session was but, as his only album, it’s certainly intriguing.

    I would encourage all fans of these artists to let Uptown know that, should they release these, others besides me will buy them.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      The Budd Johnson-Phil Woods album, The Old Dude and the Fundance Kid, long ago rode off into the sunset and a limited afterlife on eBay.

  3. says

    Frank’s final recording, Magic 201, is scheduled for Feb 2014 release.

    Frank Wess “Magic 201″ (IPO Recordings IPOC 1025) Street Date February 11, 2014

    Frank Wess-Tenor & Flute; Kenny Barron-Piano; Rufus Reid-Bass; Russell Malone-Guitar, Winard Harper-Drums /

    Wendy Oxenhorn over at the Jazz Foundation is helping the family with the funeral arrangements. I’Ll keep you posted.