After recovering from a hellish descent into drug addiction, crime, and incarceration, the legendary alto saxophonist Art Pepper resurrected himself as a player. He accomplished several fine recordings, a number of live performances on the US West Coast, a couple of important stops in New York, and a notable tour of Japan. Pepper thus had a few good years in the late 1970s and died all too soon of a stroke in 1982 at the age of 56. His comeback was not just a has-been's effort at squeezing out a few good shows. He achieved a genuine resilience, stretched the scope of his work, and gathered top musicians to accompany him. In recent years, Laurie Pepper has issued a series of recordings from that era, Unreleased Art
which she gathered after his death. Some of them, like this one, are treasures.
The current CD, the eighth in the series, was recorded live at a jazz festival at the Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga, California on September 6, 1976. The group consisted of local musicians, and at that time the San Francisco area boasted a coterie of talented players who worked locally, especially in the neighborhood of Half Moon Bay on the coast, south of the city. On this occasion, pianist Smith Dobson
, bassist Jim Nichols
, and drummer Brad Bilhorn, though not among the international legends who were familiar partners for Pepper, provided strong backing for his work.
The album starts off with an energetic version of Dizzy Gillespie's "Caravan," which begins with improvised lines typical of Pepper's early style. His quickness and alert phrasing are unblemished, and his tempos are faster, but his sound is slightly thinner than in his early days. (Whether intentional or the result of diminished health from the years of addiction, the sharpness of sound isn't offensive but gives a bit of a "beat generation" feeling.) Smith Dobson offers some strong soloing on piano, reflecting the bebop era style that characterizes the whole set.
In his original tune, "Ophelia," which appears on several of his recordings, Pepper uses the simple three-note melody as a motif for improvising complex lines. One is reminded of his early days when he was, relatively speaking, more laid back and light.
"Here's that Rainy Day" is a gem, one of those truly great ballad renditions in the jazz archives. Pepper, who always played ballads without breaking out into double time swing mode, used a minimalized touch of vibrato and captured the sad mood of the piece by his soft sonority and sustaining of notes at the end of phrases, especially the drone-like fifth which recurs in the melody. The beauty of this rendition is priceless.
The mood then shifts to a hard-driven blues, "What Laurie Likes," with occasional preacher-like wails of the type which are usually reserved for the upper register of the tenor saxophone. Dobson's piano clusters add to the soulful gospel-like energy, which reaches a frenetic peak in the last chorus. The influence of John Coltrane
and McCoy Tyner
can be felt here.
The phrase and the tune "Straight Life" are forever associated with Pepper's well-known autobiography. This version displays his vigorous adeptness at rapid runs. The recording ends with a laid back "Saratoga Blues," which seems somewhat of an afterthought.
There is an honesty in Pepper's playingit is never sentimental or flashy. As a result, the overall impact of the album is a renewed appreciation of his remarkable resilience and improvisational capacity, tempered by a touch of sadness which may have remained for him after he recovered from his addiction.