Celebrating a Patron Saint for Reed Players
Dozens of saxophonists around New York still swear by Frank Wess, who died at 91 in 2013, and one of his most accomplished collaborators, Scott Robinson, just honored him at Birdland.
Thirty years ago, two extraordinary saxophone players – who were both also highly accomplished arrangers and composers – got together, formed a band, played some gigs, and made an album.
One, Frank Wess, was 70 at the time, and approaching the final act of a career in which he had been celebrated as a longtime saxophone star of Count Basie’s orchestra, as well as the first major flute soloist in jazz. The other, Scott Robinson, then 31, was at an early stage in a career in which he gradually demonstrated that he could play almost every instrument masterfully — not only reeds but brass — in every jazz style ever created, from New Orleans to the “New Thing” of the 1960s and ’70s.
Even into his 80s, Wess was a fixture on the New York jazz scene, in every club and venue, among them Jazz at Lincoln Center, the 92nd Street Y, and the Village Vanguard. He kept on playing almost right up to his passing at 91 in 2013.
Dozens of saxophonists around New York still swear by Wess, who became a kind of patron saint for reed players who worked in any variation of swing or early bop, as well as for any reed man who aspired to play in a big band saxophone section. Wess and Mr. Robinson first documented their eight-piece ensemble on the 1993 album “Trying to Make My Blues Turned Green.” They appeared together on various shows and sessions over the next 15 years, and then reconvened with the well-titled “Once Is Not Enough” in 2008.
Frank Wess’s 100th birthday anniversary occurred a year ago, but because most clubs were at that time not up to full post-pandemic strength, his centennial was honored by Mr. Robinson this past week at Birdland. Mr. Robinson reassembled the octet, drawing on musicians and music from both albums.
His co-star, stepping into Frank Wess’s big shoes, is saxophonist Bill Easley, along with trumpeters Frank Greene and Mike Rodriguez, trombonist Steve Davis, and a rhythm section of pianist Michael Weiss, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Dennis Mackrel. Between the two of them, Messrs. Robinson and Easley easily played at least six or seven different horns.
“Surprise! Surprise!” is a suitably bright-and-bouncy opener by Wess that he liked so much that he used it as the title of two entirely different albums, a quartet set from 1993 and an all-star session from 1996. The show was highlighted by two exciting variations on “I Got Rhythm” chord changes (oh, Wess knew those changes well), the first of which was Wess’s “Short Circuit,” with Mr. Robinson soloing on baritone saxophone, and with an eloquent statement from the veteran Mr. Reid, 78. Mr. Robinson’s arrangement of hard-bop pianist Horace Parlan’s “Little Esther” gave him the chance to stretch out on both trumpet and tenor sax on the same number, along with Mr. Davis.
“Listen to the Dawn” is an extraordinarily ballad, composed by guitarist Kenny Burrell, which Wess played on bass flute with the rhythm section. Mr. Robinson recreated that performance using Wess’s actual instrument, a rather odd duck of a horn that resembles an implement wielded by a member of the plumber’s union rather than the musicians’ local 802. The low, lyrical sound Mr. Robinson gets on it, no less than Frank Wess did in 1993, is positively other-worldly.
The 1931 “Sweet and Lovely,” as arranged by Wess, was the evening’s only standard, with Mr. Greene getting his most memorable moment of the Friday set. The primary blues was Mr. Weiss’s “Power Station,” with spots for Mr. Easley on tenor, Mr. Rodriguez, and the composer.
“The Octet,” as the band was billed on the Birdland calendar, concluded with the other “Rhythm” variant. This was “Backfire,” composed by Wess and arranged for the group by Mr. Mackrel, who used it as the opportunity for one of the evening’s exciting and highly musical percussion solos.
It was a thrilling set that did the honoree proud — as well as his highly refined, updated vision of little big band swing.
The 1990s, remember, was the decade of what we then called “retro swing.” Those bands seemed like fun enough at the time — infinitely superior to most of what passes for pop music — but who listens to them now? The music of Frank Wess, from any stage of his career, is guaranteed to be with us for another 100 years at the very least.