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Art Pepper: West Coastin'

Nic Jones By

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Pepper's figurative embracing of heroin addiction wrought changes in his style which by the time of these sessions were sufficient to have largely overhauled his music.
The last article in this series discussed the most significant strand in the recording history of Sonny Criss , a musician who was unjustly neglected during his lifetime. By contrast, Art Pepper might have been overexposed during his. If so, then this was a process helped in no small part by his autobiography1 in which he candidly discloses what loathsome traits were to be found in his personality. None of these, however, have any bearing on his abilities as a jazz musician, and The Hollywood All Star Sessions brings together a number of dates, all of them not originally put out under Pepper's name, from the autumn of his years, by which time his alto sax style had become one of the most distinctive in the music.

In the early years of his career it was abundantly clear that Pepper had forged a style that for all of its individuality could still be fitted right in with the cool school. But the passing of time and the vagaries of fortune, not to mention Pepper's figurative embracing of heroin addiction, wrought changes in his style which by the time of these sessions were sufficient to have largely overhauled his music.

The first of these sessions, recorded in March of 1979, finds Pepper partnered in the front line by trombonist Bill Watrous, who is technically the more advanced player at the same time as he's the one seemingly less able to acheive some emotional impact. By this time Pepper's lyricism was of a fractious order, and his phrasing underscores the impression of an individual with anything but time on his hands.

Watrous turns up again in a front line expanded to three pieces with the addition of Bob Cooper on tenor sax for the date recorded on May 4, 1981. Here Cooper's big-hearted appproach is the perfect foil for Pepper, whose repertoire by this time had encompassed reed squeaks as a means for accentuating what sounds like his impatience with the form he's working in.

The session in the company of Sonny Stitt, who on this occasion more or less completely dropped his favoured tenor sax for a return to the alto, could well have ended up as some endless display of grandstanding. But what emerges instead is perhaps what a great many people might have expected; Stitt was always the more convincing player of bop, and this session makes that apparent. "Scrapple From The Apple" finds Pepper again wearing his impatience on his sleeve, whilst Stitt coasts through the thing in the manner to which he was born. Overall, the session is however an object lesson in the diversity of sounds that can be fashioned from the same horn.

This is equally true of the last session here, recorded in January of 1982. For a time both Pepper and Lee Konitz -who's featured here- were conveniently saddled with the "cool" epithet by many who perhaps simply overlooked the intricacies and variety of their musical expression. At that time the two of them had been on and off the scene for decades, and this reveals itself in the depth of expression found here. Konitz is happily still with us and underscoring that point in the way he's always done.

That old adage about not seeing their like again is separated from a lot of its kind by the fact that there's no little substance in it. Because of this it's become one of the most convenient excuses for nostalgia. Art Pepper's musical evolution, regardless of whether or not it's considered as but one aspect of a less than agreeable personality, will however always amount to a case for looking forwards.

1 Straight Life - Art & Laurie Pepper (1979)
The Hollywood All Star Sessions (Galaxy 5GCD-4431-2)

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