Frank Wess All Stars – Columbia, Missouri

Frank Wess and Rufus Reid at Murry’s
I’m sure some people must think I doth protest too much when I tell them about all the astonishing jazz that we get to hear in Columbia, Missouri, but boy, I wish the doubters had been at Murry’s this evening, where Frank Wess and his band played a set which had me floating out of the place on air.  Wess is a legend.  He’s best known for playing with the Count Basie Orchestra when that outfit was at the very peak of its powers.  He’s 86 now, and sits on a stool while he plays, but every note he plays oozes passion and swing and soul.  He has a gorgeous, warm tone on tenor and plays with marvelous authority and a sprightly turn of phrase.

Terell Stafford
His band weren’t too shoddy, either.  One of the highlights of the night for me was bassist Rufus Reid’s feature, a lovely Tadd Dameron tune called “If You Could See Me Now”.  I haven’t counted but Reid must appear on at least twenty CDs in my collection – he’s seems to have played with just about everyone.  Our regular table at Murry’s is about eighteen inches behind the drummer’s stool, and Winard Harper gave us a show we won’t forget in a hurry.  During his first solo he attacked his high hat with such gleeful enthusiasm that he broke it.  The second tune was punctured with only intermittent contributions from him as he tried to fix it.  Behind his flamboyant pyrotechnics was a flawless technique.  His drums solos were splendid, punctuated by whiplash rimshots and eye-popping polyrhythms which had him sweeping across his drumkit like a whirling dervish in a slightly alarming fashion.  Ilya Lushtak, the guitarist, was difficult to see from where we sat but he played superbly, propelling things along with a nice, reticent touch.  Then there was sharp-dressed Terell Stafford on trumpet.  I know “blistering” is an awful cliche to use with jazz trumpeters, but, honestly, he was.  He did the lot – cool muted horn work and spiralling eddies of notes hot enough to scald.  He’s a long-time favorite with Jazz Series regulars and had the crowd whooping with warm appreciation.  He sometimes sat next to me when he wasn’t playing, and while he listened to his colleagues he would murmur his appreciation and snap his fingers on the off-beat, which put me off my carefully studied foot-tapping.

Mr. Hip and Mr. Unhip
The band played mostly original compositions, making an exception for Ellington’s “Cottontail” (I soon forgot about Ben Webster) and a bossa nova version of Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as an encore.  Mostly the tunes were just vehicles for exuberant, uninhibited blowing.  The band was clearly having nearly as much fun as we were.
Jazz is a music which lives.  Improvisation thrives on interaction between band members.  It is, or should be, a dialogue, but you never hear the same conversation twice.  That’s why jazz is best heard live, where its immediacy is most compelling, the sense of a unique, never-to-be-repeated occasion is most bewitching.  And I simply cannot believe that tonight there was another room in the entire United States – hell, in the whole world, probably – where there were five better, more attuned musicians playing the music they love together.  What a night.  Thank you, Frank Wess.  It was a privilege.

Comments 2

  1. Good as it undoubtedly was, nothing can make me forget Ben Webster, even temporarily.

  2. Forgive me the hyperbole. Point taken. I got a wonderful 8 disc box set last Christmas called “Ben Webster in Europe”, which includes a great set at Ronnie’s.

    By the way, have you seen these “Jazz Icons” DVDs that they’ve been releasing over here? Are they available in the UK as well? They’re very good.

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