What first caught my ears in Magic 101 is how well Frank Wess sits between Rusty Bryant and Hank Mobley—not physically, of course, not in a band, but in sonics and mentation. He embodies the ethos of jazz as it held the line against what would occur in the 60s and 70s…but with just enough of a presage of what had been developing, that occasional outside edge of the new, so that you understood the guy wasn't blind or deaf to oncoming changes. Regardless, there's a world of romanticism and elder days here in Magic 101 wrought by a gent who, at 89 years of age, still knows exactly what he's doing. Let me say that again: 89…years…old. At that age, I'll be lucky if I still know my elbow from my you-know-what, yet here's Wess blowing like a champ…and writing as well (Pretty Lady is his).
Easy Living shows why I chose Mobley as an outside comparative. Wess briefly explores possibilities in an abstract intro that settles down perfectly into the song proper. Further on in the tune, he experiments a bit more while keeping excellent fidelity with the melody, later repeating the discrete wont in All too Soon. Kenny Barron, as one would expect, mans a pristine set of keys throughout the entire collection, always consummate. If the guy ever made a mistake, it had to be back when he was a teenager, woodshedding, 'cause no one's heard him do so since. His simpatico with Wess is ground-level magic, and the two play off each other as though the oldest of friends.
It requires no more than a few songs to realize that this is a form of jazz in danger of going away once Wess and the rest of the elder statesmen depart to meet their suh-wingin' maker, 'cause very very few can imbue the music with the feel and ambiance shown in Magic 101. I suspect ya hadda live through the times to really get the full monty. Sure, there's still a decent amount of musicians working at it, and doing quite well but never quite like this. Times have changed, and that which bred the hallmark lions is damn near faded into antiquity, taking with it a refinement of an order not well cognized in the new millenium. Here, though, you have a chance to drink it all in again. Take your time, shake off the careerist tensions, pour a snifter of brandy, turn the lights down, and just sit back and listen. You'll soon find yourself in the same reverie that entranced your father and grandfather.
Oh, and I don't know who wrote the promo lit for the CD, but whoever it was, he or she came up with one of the all-time great lines: "By its very nature, great Jazz cannot be perfect". I wish to hell I'd written that! It's not quite true but is nonetheless very much so, embodying one of the more baffling paradoxes of art. Some critics write all their lives and never produce an observation as sharp as that one. Fight with it all you want, Ellingtonians and such, but it's still as verifiable as it is arguable, and goddammit, I REALLY wish I'd come up with it!
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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