Barney Wilen: French Ballads

Rating: ★★★

Record and Artist Details


Riccardo Del Fra (b)
Barney Wilen (ts, ss)
Michel Graillier (p)
Sangoma Everett (d)


Elemental Music 5990440


Media Format:



Rec. June 1987

Ashley Kahn’s booklet commentary to this deluxe – one might even say slightly overcooked – reissue notes how different was Wilen’s identity as a 50-year-old veteran to that of the teenage wunderkind who’d worked with Bud Powell, Art Blakey and Miles Davis at the tail end of the 1950s.

In essence he’s right; this isn’t Wilen the soundalike hard bopper but a far gentler, more idiosyncratic stylist, whose oddly hooting, tremulous delivery suggests even earlier heroes.

Indeed, parts of this record bring the tenorist almost full circle, reminding us that he spent a lot of time listening to swing tenors Lester Young, Don Byas and Lucky Thompson in those far off Left Bank days. Intriguingly this makes Wilen come across at times as a much’ much older player, one who can take something as stickily cloying as ‘My Way’ and make you believe every last drop of sentiment. But there’s also a somewhat chameleon feel to his playing too. On the piano-less ‘Tears’ he hints at Sonny Rollins, another early influence. The single soprano track – ‘Un Etê 42 (The Summer of 42)’ - reveals what was always the saxophonist’s most individual instrumental choice.

Once something of a cult release (Wilen himself was one of jazz’s great romantic figures) this revamped version provides the full works – gorgeous art work, crisply clear photos, bonus cuts – but it’s hard to escape the feeling that it captures a considerable talent already past its peak.

That said, Wilen’s winning way with a melody makes a refreshing contrast to today’s doom-laden angularity. Not exactly essential then, nor a mere makeweight, this is an album of charm and considerable thought. I’m just not sure it lives up to the cover hype.

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