Taste is what separates great jazz musicians from average ones. Those who have taste consistently choose notes, tempos, timbres and voicings that seduce and satisfy attentive listeners. Taste also requires a conscious effort on the part of the artist to make smart decisions about songs. Tenor saxophonist Frank Wess has always had superb taste, and perhaps his most tasteful post-1960, non-Basie recording is Two at the Top (Uptown), with trumpeter Johnny Coles. Fortunately for us this album is back in print.
Recorded in June 1963, Two at the Top paired Wess and Coles with pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Reggie Johnson and drummer Kenny Washington. This quintet knew instinctively how to produce collective beauty. Now add perfect song choices and Don Sickler's gorgeous arrangements and you have a powerfully superb jazz album.
The tracks on the original album were Whistle Stop and An Oscar for Oscar (Kenny Dorham), Morning Star (Rodgers Grant), Celia (Bud Powell), Nica's Tempo and Minority (Gigi Gryce), Ill Wind (Harold Arlen and Ted Koelher) and Stablemates (Benny Golson). On the remastered and newly reissued two-CD set from by Bob Sunenblick's Uptown label, six studio tracks have been added.
The CD set also includes five tracks of Wess and Coles recorded live at Yoshi's in San Francisco in January 1988. The rhythm section behind them were pianist Smith Dobson, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Donald Duck' Bailey.
On the studio tracks, Wess's smokey, slippery tone is matched by Coles' patient, round sound—resulting in tasteful sensibilities cut from the same cloth. Their creative symbiosis is evident on the mid-tempo ballad Morning Star, with each musician soloing graceful and playing around the other affectionately.
On the live date, Wess switches to the flute on Sam Jones' One for Amos, reminding us once again that he (and Jerome Richardson) set the bar for all jazz flute players who followed. Of particular note is Wess's gorgeous ballad composition If You Can't Call, Don't Come—the only known recording of this song.
On Buddy Montgomery's medium-tempo Blues for David, we hear a soulful indigo serenade that first appeared on Montgomery's The Two-Sided Album for Milestone in 1968. Here, Wess switches from graceful line-weaver to groovy soul honker, while Coles turns up the heat a bit as well. Interestingly, they both had the good taste not to over-cook the effects.
For those who appreciate dance-like playing by jazz masters with heart, it's gratifying to have Two for the Top back in print and sounding better than ever.