The story of saxophonist Art Pepper as documented in his autobiography Straight Life
(Schirmer Books, 1979) is a remarkable one. The brash and extraordinarily talented Pepper followed saxophonist Charlie Parker into a life of addiction and for Pepper, prison. In between stints, he made some marvelous records, advancing Parker's bebop into a more personal statement. His music, especially during the last six years of his life (he died in 1982 at age 56) was urgent, eloquent, and exceptional.
That Charlie Parker life-style took away many talented young men. If only Pepper had survived like saxophonist Frank Morgan, whose story parallels his own, imagine the music the two of them could have made. Fortunately for Pepper fans, his widow Laurie has begun to release some of his final recordings. Like Sue Mingus and T. Monk, who have taken it upon themselves to preserve the live music of bassist Charles Mingus and pianist Thelonious Monk, these sessions recorded by cassette or for radio broadcast allow us to relive some very special live moments and give a deeper understanding of a true jazz giant.
Unreleased Art, Vol. 1
This two-disc set opens with the track "Landscape already in progress. The persnickety listener may complain, but there is so much to love here that such minor flaws are easily overlooked. The album was recorded during a tour of Japan in 1981. Pepper brought along his favorite pianist, George Cables, who in the final years was his most sympathetic collaborator. Their duo recordings Goin' Home (Fantasy, 1982) and Tête-à-Tête (Fantasy, 1982) are well worth re-examination.
Recorded from the sound board by cassette, which has to be turned over during "For Freddie, the music was nicely cleaned up by engineer Wayne Peet. Pepper is full of fire throughout, responding to the very enthusiastic Japanese audience. The highlight might be an emotional version of "Body & Soul. Pepper walks a rhapsodic tightrope squeezing out each poetic line with such heart. At the conclusion he even remarks what a special rendition it was.
Elsewhere he plays the familiar "Road Waltz, "Straight Life, and a spirited take on Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-a-Ning. In Pepper's hands, the Monk classic is at once swing and bebop. The altoist had by then, created his own language and distinctive sound. You can pick his horn out of a crowd, and the comfort Pepper displayed when playing the familiar is the gem to be cherished here.
Pepper's working band of Cables, bassist David Williams and drummer Carl Burnett make for a cohesive unit. The music is tight, responsive and satisfying.
Unreleased Art, Vol. II
The single disc Unreleased Art, Vol. II was Pepper's last performance. It was recorded by Voice of America at Kennedy Center during the Kool Jazz Festival in May of 1982. The concert again opens with "Landscape, but George Cables had taken a better gig as Sarah Vaughan's musical director. He was replaced by Roger Kellaway, a successful Los Angeles TV composer. The pianist changes the flavor of this outing a bit, but that's just fine as Pepper is the main attraction.
With old friend tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims in the wings, and an enthusiastic crowd on hand, Pepper rises once again to the occasion. His blues "Ophelia is a musical description of a woman, at least one woman that has a soft swing and that rougher edge Pepper's imagination allows. His near classic "Mambo Koyama is stretched to over seventeen minutes, allowing Pepper and crew to solo on the crowd pleaser.
Pepper plays the oft heard "Over The Rainbow and finishes with "When You're Smiling on clarinet. In a few months he would be dead. It is fitting that he pulled out the clarinet for his last performance. He learned his craft on this instrument. Once considered square, in the hands of a genius like Pepper it becomes a sweet and humble delivery vessel.
Tracks and Personnel
Unreleased Art, Vol. I
Tracks: CD1: Landscape; Besame Mucho; Red Car; Goodbye; Staight Life. CD2: Road Waltz; For Freddie (part one); For Freddie (part two); Body & Soul; Rhythm-A-Ning; Blues Encore.
Personnel: Art Pepper: alto saxophone; George Cables: piano; Davis Williams: bass; Carl Burnett: drums.
Unreleased Art, Vol. II
Tracks: Landscape; Ophelia; Mambo Koyama; Over The Rainbow; When You're Smiling.
Personnel: Art Pepper: alto saxophone, clarinet; Roger Kellaway: piano; David Williams: bass; Carl Burnett: drums.