American Music (and Musicians) For The Ages

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By Barry Bassis

We all know that great music lasts forever, but some musicians seem to live, and even perform, into their old age.

When a new CD, “Magic 101,” arrived from Frank Wess, I immediately checked for the date of the recording, assuming it must have been made decades ago. Yet, the session took place in June 2011. Born in 1922, he performed at Birdland earlier this year to celebrate his 91st birthday. Wess was a mainstay of the Count Basie band during his ten years there. That group became know as the “Two Franks” band because of the two saxophonist-composer-arrangers Frank Wess and Frank Foster. In 2007 he received the American Jazz Masters Fellowship award from The National Endowment for the Arts. And what does Wess sound like on the CD? Smooth as silk. Wess plays tenor saxophone and, never a flamboyant musician, he is mellower than ever, on evergreens like “The Very Thought of You” and “Easy Living.” He also sustains a gentle swing, with the help of a first-rate group: Kenny Barron on piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Winard Harper on drums. This is an album you can put on to relax after a stressful day. Incidentally, the tile of the new album is a reference to the fact that Magic is the nickname his band mates gave to Wess. My only complaint about the CD is that Wess doesn’t play flute, an instrument on which he was one of the jazz pioneers.


Marlene VerPlanck is another jazz veteran who defies time. Her first recording was released in 1955 and her new CD is “Ballads…mostly.” It’s mystifying how someone aged 79 can sound so youthful, but listening to the album, you would think you were listening to a woman in her thirties or forties. VerPlanck is a tasteful singer, who can swing occasionally, but mostly reanimates classic songs rather than radically reinvents them. Six of the songs here are by Cy Coleman, arranged by her late husband, Billy VerPlanck.  Her version of “Witchcraft” may not outdo Sinatra’s but it is very appealing. Also on the CD are four songs by Harry Warren, whose name should be as well known as his songs “There Will Never Be Another You” and “I Only Have Eyes for You.” VerPlanck works with top instrumentalists: Houston Person, Claudio Roditi, Mike Renzi, Jay Leonhart, Tedd Firth, Ron Vincent, and Boots Maleson. On Thursday, July 25, the singer will hold a CD release party for “Ballads…mostly” at Kitano (66 Park Ave.; kitano.com; 212-885-7119).

Woody Guthrie didn’t live a long life, but his music inspired the folk movement of the 1960’s and many artists since. To celebrate his 100th birthday, there was an all-star concert at the Kennedy Center that was recorded and released in a box set with a CD and DVD. The performers included Donovan, John Mellencamp, Judy Collins, Rosanne Cash, and Ani DiFranco. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott had been close to Guthrie and came closest to his performing style. The concert presented Guthrie’s most familiar songs as well as a couple of new songs. Lucinda Williams and Jackson Browne performed their settings of lyrics that Guthrie had written. The songs are performed in a variety of styles and reveal Guthrie’s concerns, from the plight of migrant workers and union members to playful children’s songs. Appropriately, the concert ends with everyone joining in for “This Land is Your Land.” The DVD has rare footage of Woody Guthrie performing and the box set has a 12-page booklet with rare photographs and a note from Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, who administers the Guthrie Foundation and spoke at the concert. •

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