On Wednesday, October 30, the world of jazz lost one of the truly legendary artists who helped make the music what it is today: multi-instrumentalist Frank Wess. Wess was 91 years old when he died of a heart attack in Manhattan.
Due to the limits of this review, I can only give you a thumbnail sketch of this great man’s accomplishments here. At the end of the article, those of you who want to know more about him will, as usual, find several links to other resources that will give you more detail than I have time or space for here.
Frank Wess was born on the fourth of January, 1922, in Kansas City, Missouri. His father was a school principal, his mother a teacher. According to his official web site bio, he began playing alto saxophone at age 10. His family wound up in Washington, D.C., where he went to high school and began to play both alto and tenor sax in local bands. During World War II, he played clarinet in an Army band, and after the war he began working for Billy Eckstine. It was around that time that he began to study the flute.
Thus began a series of events that led to one of the greatest careers in jazz history, during which Wess played with Count Basie, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Al Grey, Billy Mitchell, Clark Terry, Billy Taylor, and others.
Eventually Wess moved to New York City where, among other things, he landed regular gigs playing in the studio bands of Saturday Night Live (a ten year run, no less), the Dick Cavett Show, and the Sammy Davis Show, to name just a few.
Wess appeared on hundreds of albums over the years. While most of them were sideman gigs, he did release a fair number under his own name. I am not going to pretend that the album I am going to tell you about here is, hands down, the absolute best thing that he ever did. Life being the way it is, that would almost certainly turn out to be not the case.
It is, however, the best Frank Wess album in my personal collection. Well, okay. Honesty compels me to admit that it is also the only Frank Wess album in my personal collection. J
“Tryin’ To Make My Blues Turn Green” was recorded on September 7 & 8, 1993 and released later that same year. The personnel were:
Frank Wess, bass clarinet, flute, alto & tenor sax
Cecil Bridgewater, trumpet
Greg Gisbert, trumpet
Scott Robinson, clarinet, alto- baritone- and tenor sax
Lynn Seaton, bass
Steve Turre, trombone, conch shell
Richard Wyands, piano
Gregory Hutchinson, drums
“Tryin’ To make My Blues Turn Green” gives us an even dozen tunes, including five Wess wrote himself.
The album gets off to a flying start with two blazing hot tunes, the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane collaboration, “Come Back To Me” and the title track, which is the first of Wess’ contributions. Both swing mightily and give the entire ensemble adequate opportunity to strut their stuff.
The fourth song is another one from Wess, “And So It Is.” The one has a slight samba touch at first, thanks mainly to Hutchinson, who gives it just that right beat. Wyands piano is another standout on this one.
Another Wess original follows, the vibrant “Short Circuit.” Like the two openers, this one jumps right out of the starting gate and takes off in a blaze of light. Wyands has a delightful solo, as do Turre and the others.
Skipping ahead to track eight we find the delightful “Night Lights” from saxophonist Scott Robinson. Like “And So It Is,” this song has a slight touch of samba to it. This one falls solidly into the “mellow but hardly boring” category.
Another Robinson piece, “Blues In The Car,” can be found on track ten. Unlike “Night Lights,” this one is anything but mellow. Wess blows tenor on this one, and the deep gravelly tenor sound really makes this one.
I’m running up against deadline here, as usual, so we’ll jump ahead again to the final track, Burt Bacharach and Hall David’s classic title song for the movie “Alfie.” I’ve loved this song ever since the movie came out, and this version definitely does not disappoint.
All in all, I have to say that “Tryin’ To Make My Blues Turn Green” by Frank Wess will absolutely make a wonderful addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
If you’d like to learn more about the late Frank Wess and his music, his official web site is here.
Obituaries that also include fairly extensive biographies of Wess can be found on the following web sites: JazzTimes, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, and Jazz Backstory.
The page at NPR includes a link to an episode of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz that includes Wess. The episode was recorded October 4, 2010 and is titled “Generations of Jazz, Set III.”
The program description includes this about Wess:
The surprise performer of the set, 89-year-old saxophone legend Frank Wess, appears in “It Could Happen to You.” Wess swings smoothly throughout a lengthy solo, even as he leans against Mike LeDonne’s blazing piano for support, and bassist John Webber lays down a grooving bass line throughout the tune.
The episode also features Geri Allen, and the aforementioned Mike LeDonne and Jon Weber, to name only three. The complete 57+ minute episode can be heard on the NPR web site.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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