The phrase "lost album" doesn't bring about the same excitement that it did when Chris Bell's heart-shattering I Am the Cosmos was finally assembled and released in 1992 -- even though there are labels literally dedicated to releasing music of the unknown and unheard variety (and do a fine job to boot). Simply put, we've come to expect "lost albums," because this is the age where anything and everything is supposed to be available, isn't it? Fred Wesley's Lost Album was never really lost; it was simply unreleased, save for a few tracks issued as singles. In hearing it, one can only ask why. The Lost Album Featuring Watermelon Man is billed to the J.B.'s & Fred Wesley; it is, for the most part, a jazz album -- and a fine one. While James Brown handpicked some selections and asked his arranger David Matthews to compose others and write arrangements, Wesley contributed tunes and charts as well. The sessions were actually recorded in New York in 1972 with top-flight session players including Michael and Randy Brecker, Joe Farrell, Eddie Daniels, Hugh McCracken, Seldon Powell, and others. While a righteously funky cover version of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" opens the set -- with Brown on drums (his only appearance at these sessions) -- it's followed by the loveliest, most beautifully conceived cut on the entire album, Wesley's ballad "Sweet Loneliness." With a lilting, colorful chart, his trombone offers a multi-timbred lyricism, and the bridge, while brief, is electrifying.
Covers of popular tunes were de rigueur during the era, and a good number of them can be heard here, including fine jazz arrangements of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," Bill Withers' "Use Me" (which is so slippery, and Wesley's trombone so greasy, it actually adds to the funk quotient of the original), and the gorgeous soul-jazz of "Everybody Plays the Fool." Both these tunes add a backing female vocal chorus to contrast with Wesley's deep grooving, swinging bone. The track planned to be the B-side of "Watermelon Man" as a pre-release single (which was never previously issued) is a faithful jazz rendering of Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)." Who would have thought the tune had so much soul? The real scorchers are Matthews' Count Basie-esque "Seulb," a backwards vamp blues with killer work from Michael Brecker, and "Transmograpification," with an extended imaginative solo by Wesley. Familiar James Brown & the J.B.'s set nuggets such as "J.B. Shout," "Get on the Good Foot," "Funky & Some," and "Back Stabbers" feature wonderful interplay among the horns -- especially Randy Brecker and Wesley. The trombonist is certainly front and center on every cut here, making it a grand statement for him. The Lost Album has been beautifully remastered and its sequence extended including other material from these sessions. It nonetheless fleshes out Wesley's history and reveals him to be as serious a jazz cat as he was a funk kingpin as musical director of the J.B.'s' funkified presentation. Ultimately, this is one of those "lost albums" that not only meets expectations, but easily exceeds them.