John Bunch and Frank Wess


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During down time with Count Basie's band in the 1950s, Frank Wess recorded on flute for the Commodore and Savoy record labels, among others. A gifted arranger, player and session leader, Wess' small-group flute recordings during this period are standouts on the instrument. Some of the albums are still in print on CD while others, like Trombones & Flute, are scarce or painfully expensive. So two weeks ago when I heard The John Bunch Trio with Frank Wess: Plays the Music of Irving Berlin (Except One) on the radio, I thought it was a Savoy date I didn't own.

I picked up the phone and called Sid Gribetz, the WKCR-NY disc jockey who had just played the track on the air. “Which of Frank Wess' Savoy recordings was that?" I asked. “It's not," Sid said. “It's new. It's the John Bunch trio with Frank Wess on flute." I couldn't believe it. A debonair pianist, a savvy guitarist and an on-time bassist framing Wess' swinging staccato flute. How could that 1950s sound have traveled to 2008 undisturbed?

Then again, nothing about the perennially seductive sound of Frank Wess's flute should come as a surprise. After playing tenor sax in the bands of Billy Eckstine (1946), Eddie Heywood (1946), Lucky Millinder (1947) and Bull Moose Jackson (1948-49), Wess studied flute with two classical music teachers. Before joining Basie in 1953, Wess began experimenting with jazz on the orchestral instrument.

One of Wess' earliest flute sessions was recorded in March 1954, as a sideman on Joe Newman and the Boys in the Band. The Basie-ites on the date included Joe Newman (trumpet), Henry Coker (trombone), Frank Wess (flute and tenor sax), Frank Foster (tenor sax), Charlie Fowlkes (baritone sax), Count Basie (piano), Freddie Green (guitar), Eddie Jones (bass) and Gus Johnson (drums). Months later, in May and August 1954, Wess recorded on flute again, this time heading up a quintet and sextet, playing mostly swinging originals. Last November I posted on these fabulous sessions  

Clearly, in my estimation, Frank Wess and his flute can do no wrong. So I quickly acquired the new John Bunch trio album from Arbors Records. Without a doubt, Plays the Music of Irving Berlin (Except One) is one of the finest and new releases I've heard in some time.

Bunch is no slouch, of course. The 86-year-old pianist [pictured] began

his piano-playing career at age 14. After World War II, he put music on hold, working in factories and selling insurance. In 1956, he came to his senses and moved to Los Angeles, resuming his music career. In 1957 Bunch made his first recordings with Woody Herman's band. In 1958, he played on one of the finest big band albums ever recorded, Maynard Ferguson's A Message from Newport. Then in 1959, he played on one of trombonist Urbie Green's most sublime recordings, The Message. That's Bunch on Rich v. Roach for Mercury (1959) and again on Rich's Richcraft (1959). In the 1960s Bunch played and toured extensively with Benny Goodman and Rich, and many small-group sideman and leadership dates followed. [Photo of Bunch: Roy Edwards]

Bunch is joined on the new Arbors album by guitarist

Frank Vignola, whose rhythm playing here is so strong and versatile you may find yourself checking the CD case to see who's on drums (there is no drummer on the date). Bassist John Webber keeps a dead-on swinging beat with a gentle strength. If you're unfamiliar with Bunch, he's a pianist with enormous taste in chord and note choices, operating with grace as an accompanist and soloist. Think Hank Jones and the late Tommy Flanagan.

Vignola's electric guitar work here is rich, but so is his Django Reinhardt-influenced acoustic playing. Both add different textures behind Bunch's playing. Webber's bass provides just the right thumping thickness for a group this delicate.

As good as the John Bunch Trio is, the album reaches another dimension when Wess joins in on flute. Wess plays on 6 of the CD's 12 tracks, and his swinging style grabs you fast. Wess dances around notes, slides down to the bottom of the flute's register, and just plain wails away. Anyone who's learning to play the jazz flute only needs to listen carefully to this album and call it a day. You'll discover all the technique and taste you need.

Among the high points on the album is the up-tempo I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, on which Wess soars and swoops, pecking at the notes up and down the line. On The Best Thing for You,

a Wess-less number, we get to hear the full beauty of Bunch's playing, with Vignola on electric guitar. And if you want to hear Bunch at his historic best, dig Isn't This a Lovely Day, on which he delivers puckish melody lines, block chords and even a touch of stride. The beauty of Bunch is that he knows how to take his time and catch your heartbeat along the way. Topping off this track is a beautiful solo by Wess. Aw heck, I defy you to find one bad note played by anyone on this CD. That's how good it is. [Photo of Bunch: Brian O'Connor]

So what's the “except one" in the album's title? The only non-Berlin tune is Coquette. According to Jay Leonhart's liner notes, “somebody" on the date just wanted to play the Gus Kahn, Carmen Lombardo, Johnny Green song, and on playback the recording was too good to let slide.

This recording can be found as a download at iTunes and Amazon, or as a CD here. The CD's sound will take you back to the mid-1950s and save you a fortune on those out-of-print Savoy releases featuring Frank Wess on flute.

JazzWax video clips: Bunch toured with Benny Goodman in the 1970s and 1980s. Here he joins Goodman, Buddy Tate on tenor sax and a scaled down version of the Goodman orchestra in 1976. Bunch's secret always has been his ability to keep razor-sharp time and make himself heard with tasty fills, no matter how crowded the bandstand.

As for Wess, here's a clip of music featuring two flute selections: But Beautiful and Star Eyes. Wess knocks down every pin with these solos from 1960, backed by Tommy Flanagan (piano), Eddie Jones (bass) and Bobby Donadlson (drums).

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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