In 1971, alto saxophonist Art Pepper left the Synanon drug rehabilitation center in California. The first thing he did, according to Straight Life
(Schirmer Books, 1979), his ironically titled autobiography, was get loaded. He began using heroin again, then cocaine and washed both down with phenomenal amounts of alcohol. He didn't use marijuana, said it made him nervous.
What with Synanon and time served in prison for drug offences, Pepper had been off the scene for more than 15 years. He felt a need to "keep up" and shocked many of his admirers by abandoning his hitherto lyrical approach to his horn and playing like John Coltrane
, who was the man of the hour. Eventually, as these two magnificent double albums testify, he got the balance right. His self confidence returned, along with a lyricism that was now firmly wedded to elements of Coltrane's "New Thing."
This is Pepper at the height of his powers in the years leading up to his final, inevitable decline. In 1982 his body succumbed to the remorseless battering he inflicted upon it. He was just 56, though old in jazz termshis idol and fellow addict, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker
, was just 35 when he died in 1955.
That Pepper survived and played as well as he did in his later years is a tribute to his wife Laurie. Since his death she has dedicated her life to making his work available to collectors. These two double albumsLive In The USA
, from 1975, and Live In Japan
, from 1978were long unavailable; they are re-released by the Danish Storyville label.
Art PepperLive In The USAStoryville Records
Pepper comes in cautiously on the blues that opens the set on the first album, recorded at Foothill College, in California's Los Altos hills. However, he soon hits his stride and indulges in some aggressive "free" probing, though without letting it get out of hand.
His pick-up band includes Tommy Gumina, playing his own invention, the Polychord, an electronic accordion/organ. Gumina finally gave up jazz to run the Polytone amplifier company.
"I'll Remember April" is an absolute beauty, with Pepper at his lyrical best and there's a fine reading too of Jimmy Van Heusen's "Here's That Rainy Day" followed by a high octane treatment of Ray Noble's "Cherokee," much loved by the boppers because of its complex chord changes.
The second album was recorded at Pete Douglas' Beach House at Half Moon Bay, in the Bay Area, and includes "Mr Yohe," Pepper's up-tempo tribute to Ken Yohe, who worked for the Chicago Musical Instrument Company and played a major part in re- establishing him by supplying him with saxophones and clarinets.
"The Golden Gate Bridge" is a rambling but moving monologue by Pepper, heavy with self-pity but also with righteous indignation at the indignities jazzmen had to endure in his day. It leads into "The Trip," a synthesis of his experiences in Synanon. It became the title tune of his favorite album (for Contemporary in 1976)"Here I was in my fifties and I'd finally made it," he says proudly in Straight Life
Art PepperLive In JapanStoryville Records
Laurie Pepper describes his 1978 tour of Japan as "the beginning of a new way of life for Art, at 52" indicating that he may well have been straight for the duration. Hence none of the excess that marred his Live At The Village Vanguard
recordings for Contemporary the previous year whenaccording to his own testimonyPepper was high on coke.
The first album features "My Laurie," a 15 minute-plus, well deserved eulogy to his indefatigable wife. Before his third night at the Village Vanguard, Pepper hit her, then after she had stormed out of their room, passed out snorting coke off a glass table top. "Laurie came back and woke me up...I shot the rest of my coke, and they practically carried me to the Village Vanguard for the final night of recording," he recalls in Straight Life
It starts out tumultuously, perhaps reflecting just such an incident, then changes into a lovely, lilting hymn that slowly picks up in tempo. Towards the end, Pepper is really wailing, underpinned by excellent restrained piano from Milcho Leviev. Probably Pepper's most heartfelt composition, the piece threatens to end in chaos but is rescued in the nick of time by the leader.
The second album opens with a roaring take on Juan Tizol's "Caravan." Then there's another version of "The Trip" before that old lyricism comes to the fore in Michel Legrand's "The Summer Knows."
The set closes with an up-tempo Pepper original, "Red Car," which really cooks, Leviev hitting an all-time high on piano. The Japanese audience spurs the band on, obviously ecstatic to be in the presence of one of the greatest, albeit most misguided and self-destructive figures in the turbulent history of jazz.
Both albums are taken from the last concert at Yamagata, on Hokkaido, by which time his band was really together. Bob Magnusson, on bass, and Carl Burnett, drums, put in some sterling work.
Tracks and Personnel Live In The USA
Tracks: CD1: Foothill Blues; I'll Remember April; Here's That Rainy Day; Cherokee. CD2: Mr Yohe; The Golden Gate Bridge; The Trip; Lost Life; A Night In Tunisia.
Personnel: CD1: Art Pepper: alto saxophone; Tommy Gumina: Polychord; Fred Atwood: bass; Jimmie Smith: drums. CD2: Art Pepper: alto saxophone; Smith Dobson: piano; Jim Nichols: bass; Brad Bilhorn: drums. Live In Japan
Tracks: CD1: Ophelia; Besame Mucho; My Laurie. CD2: Caravan; The Trip; The Summer Knows; Red Car.
Personnel: Art Pepper: alto saxophone; Milcho Leviev: piano; Bob Magnusson: bass; Carl Burnett: drums.