Frank Wess | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Frank Wess 

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Saxophonists who play two horns show up as often as the crosstown bus, but usually the second sax is the soprano. It's rarer to find a reedist adept at the music's traditional mainstays, tenor and alto, and rarer still to find a saxist who can swing with authority on both. Maybe it was a 50s thing: baseball had its greatest switch-hitter, Mickey Mantle, and jazz listeners could thrill to the exploits of both Sonny Stitt and Frank Wess. In the mid-50s, Wess's prowess on the bigger horn brought him to the fore in the Count Basie Orchestra, where he and Frank Foster formed a potent nexus of dueling tenors; later, at Basie's request, he shifted chairs to play alto in the same band, shading even his toughest statements with a sly, bedroom-eyes tone. Wess transfers the alto's lithe flexibility to his tenor playing: his lines flit more than they swagger, and his timbre, with its dusky quality and featherweight nuances, owes more to Lester Young than to that other fountainhead of modern tenor playing, Coleman Hawkins. By the 60s Wess had graduated to triple threat, having established a viable voice on flute, then a new instrument on the jazz scene; along with his contemporary James Moody, he essentially created the accepted style for jazz flute. Mixing swing phrasing and bop syntax, Wess's flute work was evocative of cool late-night rendezvous but also gutsy enough to escape the oft-heard criticism of the instrument as "pallid" or "inconsequential." Wess turned 81 earlier this year, an age by which many artists have mellowed, but while he's dropped a few of the fieriest flag-wavers from his repertoire, he seems, if anything, to have turned up the heat on his own playing. Friday and Saturday, June 27 and 28, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, June 29, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.

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