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Art Pepper: Presents “West Coast Sessions” Volumes 3 & 4


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Today is the day that I finally come clean about Art Pepper and me. In 1984, I was taking a year off between having finished Pharmacy School and beginning a graduate program in Medicinal Chemistry and Drug Design. During this time, I had my yearly eye appointment with my ophthalmologist, one Dr. A. Henry Thomas, with whom I struck up a conversation regarding jazz. Up to this point, the only jazz recording I owned was...of course...Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). I had already started my love affair with Classical Music at the foot of my Pharmacology Professor, Dr. Marc Jordin, from whom I was introduced to Sir George Solti's superb Beethoven Nine Symphonies with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (London, 1980) and Puccini's La Boheme performed by Herbert von Karjan and the Berlin Philharmonic, tenor Luciano Pavarotti and soprano Mirella Freni (London, 1990).

I was preparing my swan dive into jazz, when Dr. Thomas asked me had I ever read Straight Life—The Story of Art Pepper (Da Capo, 1979). I had not, and he told me it was a bracing story behind music equally bracing. I was preparing to leave to graduate school and he told me he would make a cassette tape of some of Pepper's music for me. About three weeks after I had arrived at graduate school, I got a tape. One side housed, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Contemporary, 1957) with the other side harboring Art Pepper + Eleven: Modern Jazz Classics (Contemporary, 1959). It was the latter of these that caught my ear. I had been introduced to big band music by my father, who told me of having seen Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and the Dorsey Brothers during World War II. While fine bands, it was not quite what I was looking for.

But + Eleven: Modern Jazz Classics was something else altogether when compared to the spic-and-span sound of the white swing bands of the wartime period. Having grown up in West Arkansas at the turn of the 20th century, my father had little or no exposure to the black big bands: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jay McShann, or Billy Eckstein and, by translation, I would not have heard this music. But Pepper's historic recording introduced me to an entire universe of music I could have never possibly imagined. Denzil Best's "Move" inaugurates the recording, recalling Miles Davis' historic Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1949) sides (the same with "Walkin'" and "Donna Lee" with their Davis connections to hard bop and be bop, respectively). "Opus de Funk" introduced me to Horace Silver, while "Bernie's Tune" showed me the way to Gerry Mulligan. And "'Round Midnight?" Well, I dove into this music like my life depended on it.

Next came reading that damn book, Straight Life—The Story of Art Pepper. Co written with his wife, Laurie Pepper, it sported a story every bit as decadent and sordid and creative and sublime as any rock and roll biography could review, plus, it contained a complete discography (one of those boring intellectual ploys intended to make youth appreciate the MLA Handbook (MLA, 2009) or the Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2010)). The discography was expertly assembled by writer and Pepper enthusiast, Todd Selbert, who went on to edit The Art Pepper Companion: Writings on a Jazz Original (Cooper Square Press, 2000). That discography led me the rest of the way into jazz. I was not Dante, but Virgil, himself.

Break ahead some 30 years to the age of internet and social media, and I found myself wanting to write music criticism. In the 1970s and '80s, when I was growing up, there was Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Ben Fong-Torres, and Cameron Crowe already writing about the music I was so passionate about. The emerging discipline of rock criticism was pretty well crowded by authors better established than myself. That said, long about 1997, I came across a website requesting reviews from the reading public. I had just purchased Art Pepper's previously unreleased San Francisco Samba (Contemporary, 1997) and thought, "Well, what the heck," and I penned about 400 words and sent that via the very early manifestation of email to one Michael Ricci. On December 1, 1997, my first review for All About Jazz was published. And this was only the beginning.

Having little idea what I was doing, as I had zero journalism experience (being a country druggist with an interest in Clinical Research), I quickly became aware what a music service was and how they would provide music for review. It was through this end of things that I made the acquaintance of one Terri Hinte, who, at the time was working for Fantasy Records (eventually to be purchased by Concord Music Group, at which time Ms. Hinte went free agent). Art Pepper's widow, Laurie, was just beginning to release previously unheard live recordings of Pepper as part of her Widow's Taste's Unreleased Art Pepper series, presently consisting of nine volumes with more promised. It was through Terri Hinte that I made the fortunate acquaintance of Laurie Pepper, whose own personal story is every bit as vital and compelling as her late husband's as presented in her memoir, ART: Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman (Art Pepper Music, 2014). Laurie Pepper has always made sure I have plenty to write about and I am grateful to her for it.

To the matter at hand... Between 1960 and 1975, Art Pepper did not make one studio recording as a leader. November 23 & 25, 1960, Pepper recorded nine tunes with pianist Dolo Coker, bassist Jimmy Bonds, and drummer Frank Butler. The session resulted in Intensity! (Contemporary, 1960) and as a part of the cobbled together ...The Way it Was! (Contemporary, 1972—from four sessions between 1956 and 1960). Pepper was out on bail during the session, after which he proceeded to San Quentin and five years of incarceration. In 1975, after playing with the Buddy Rich Big Band and a stint in the controversial Synanon, Pepper emerged to record again for Contemporary Records, producing Living Legend, and marking his final comeback as a performing artist. After several notable studio dates and his triumphant 1977 stand at New York City's Village Vanguard (captured in its entirety on The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions (Contemporary, 1995)), Pepper reached his escape velocity into jazz superstardom.

In 1979, after several tours of Japan, the saxophonist was asked by a small Japanese niche label, Yupiteru (later to become Atlas Records), to record "authentic 1950s West Coast jazz" of which Pepper was a major part. However, at the time, Pepper was under exclusive contract with Contemporary/Galaxy Records and not legally permitted to record as a leader for any other label. At the time, Laurie Pepper, suggested that the saxophonist record "sideman" who was permitted to pick the recordings' "leaders." This bit of contractual chicanery permitted Pepper to record with a host of peers, including alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt, pianist Pete Jolly, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. Trombonist Bill Watrous, trumpeter Jack Sheldon, and drummer Shelly Manne.

These recording sessions produced seven released on the Atlas imprint between March 1970 and January 1982 (Pepper died five months later, June 15, 1982). Originally released only in Japan, these recordings were assembled for the 2001 box set Art Pepper: The Hollywood Allstar Sessions (Galaxy) for release in the United States.

To date, Omnivore Records has remastered and released two volumes: Art Pepper: Presents "West Coast Sessions" Volumes 1: Sonny Stitt (2017) and Art Pepper: Presents "West Coast Sessions" Volumes 2: Pete Jolly (2017). The present release includes Pepper's collaborations with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and trombonist Bill Watrous, leaving only those sessions with Jack Sheldon and Shelly Manne unreleased (but promised soon). These Omnivore releases sport new new liner notes by Laurie Pepper and previously unreleased material from the sessions. The sonics are improved and all of the session material is provided.

Art Pepper: Presents "West Coast Sessions" Volumes 3: Lee Konitz
Omnivore Records

Pepper had a knack of being able to perform with horn players whose approaches were much different from his. At first thought, the cool, intellectual alto saxophonist Lee Konitz is an unlikely playing partner for the often fiery, emotive Pepper. Then Pepper's work with tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh comes to mind and the pairing does not seem so odd. Pepper had recorded with Marsh several times over a period of twenty years, beginning with Art Pepper with Warne Marsh (Contemporary, 1956) and ending with the recently released Unreleased Art: Volume 9 -Art Pepper & Warne Marsh At Donte's, April 26, 1974 .

Konitz came out of the same school as Marsh, that of the hyper-smart Lennie Tristano, whose vision of jazz was almost chilly intellectual. While certainly intellectually endowed, Pepper might best be considered purely emotive, devoid of Freudian ego, his talent and expression existing has a shivering, naked id screaming from the sterile analytics of performance. Putting the two disparate personalities together forms a curious, synergistic compromise of styles, accentuating Konitz' be bop bona fides with Pepper's drift into the realm of the mind and pure thought. The two men tempered one another, making the session an overall pleasing success.

Another element every bit as fortuitous as Laurie Pepper's idea for Pepper to record as a "sideman," is the effect that that decision had on Pepper and his playing. He entered the studio relaxed, knowing that he was not the "leader" of these dates. There was no pressure on him and this can plainly be heard in his calm and confident playing. Compare any performance here with Pepper's Village Vanguard or Maiden Voyage appearances and you will see what I mean. Pepper is here to shoot the musical breeze with Konitz, while, at the same time, provoke Konitz into some hard bop pathos. After a tentative "S' Wonderful," the two men click on a reprise of "Whims of Chambers," which Pepper originally released on his notable 1960 release Getting' Together (Contemporary) made with that period's Miles Davis rhythm section. The two share the same simpatico on the closing "Cherokee," each tempering the other's excesses.

Where Pepper approached Konitz's cerebral approach may best be heard on "A Minor Blues in F" and "High Jingo," where he almost sounds sedate, if not totally comfortable with his environment. The latter is a Pepper original penned for the occasion and the two approach the same synthesis achieved by Miles Davis on his Birth of the Cool sides (which, Konitz took part on in 1949). This is curiously cool be bop that brings Pepper and Konitz to the event horizon of each's talents.

Art Pepper: Presents "West Coast Sessions" Volumes 4: Bill Watrous
Omnivore Records

Recorded in March 1979, what would become Bill Watrous Quintet—Funk'n Fun was put together in the Sade & Sound Studios in Hollywood. Where the Pepper-Konitz collaborations were interesting exercises in creative tension between different artists, Pepper's work with trombonist Bill Watrous was a streamlined blowing session infused with swing and swagger. The presence of pianist Russ Freeman brought an element of continuity to Pepper that manifests in his relaxed and lyrical playing. Also on this recording is my favorite bassist of Pepper's, Bob Magnusson, whose sense of swing was a certain, like the speed of light. The combination made for a productive session.

this recording concentrated on ballads. "Just Friends" and "When Your Lover has Gone" frame well the mellow tone of Watrous' trombone and finds Pepper at his most contemplative. "Angel Eyes" is a centerpoint of sorts on the recording, revealing the similarities between Watrous and Pepper regarding their shared ability to dig deep and find something new in the familiar. The takeaway here is the relaxed candor expressed by Pepper in these sessions and how very good he could be under any circumstance.

Critic's Note: Anno Domini 2017, marks both the 100th Anniversary of recorded jazz, deftly noted by the release of the shellac "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step (A)/Livery Stable Blues (B)," Victor 18255, recorded February 26, 1917 and released March 7, 1917. My father was 18 months old and my mother was yet to be born for two years. It is also the twentieth anniversary of me writing for All About Jazz. The first recording I reviewed for the magazine was Art Pepper's San Francisco Samba (Contemporary, 1997), published December 1, 1997. I am using this present review as part of a series noting my twentieth anniversary with the magazine and paying special tribute to my fellow writers at All About Jazz, Publisher Michael Ricci, and groovy people like Terri Hinte and Laurie Pepper, who I would otherwise have never met.

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