What jumps out of Art Pepper's Blues for the Fisherman
is his alto saxophone's boldness and overt expressiveness. If prior exposure has only scratched the surface of Pepper's workperhaps with the ubiquitous Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section
(Contemporary, 1957)this live recording fairly smashes expectations of a polite, cool performance. Recorded in two nights at Ronnie Scott's London jazz club in 1980, Pepper is simply on fire, this set burying any lingering misconceptions that Pepper was just a west coast cool blower. Blues for the Fisherman
provides a rare opportunity to hear two complete uninterrupted club dates, including banter with the audience. Pepper is clearly enjoying himself, joking with the crowd, and his playing reflects that warm interaction. The synergy within the band is telepathic, obviously inspired by Pepper's buoyancy.
"Blues for Blanche," named for Pepper's cat, proffers a very contemporary melody, the saxophonist improvising to the edge of chaos without crossing the line into deconstructed mess. Pepper exhibits Charlie Parker
's speed, couple with the looseness and expressiveness of later, more adventurous players like John Coltrane
and Wayne Shorter
, while sounding like none of them. He never dives off into free territory, but there are passages where he could, on the verge of breaking out of blues patterns before reeling back in.
On a record with a lot of great soloing, the best is found on Thelonious Monk
's "Rhythm-A- Ning." Rather than just riffing over the tune, Pepper captures the composition's essence by playing rubato, and slightly out of key, in seemingly random phrases much like Monk's own piano playingfairly exploding in some passages with clusters of hard-blown notes that verge on shouting. Pianist Milcho Leviev
, follows form with hard playing that briefly becomes completely disassociated with the melody and beat. Like his leader, he pulls it all back together in a feat of musical daring. Recorded hundreds of times, making it difficult to find anything truly original in any one version, Pepper's interpretation of "Rhythm-A-Ning" is an exception, with some of the most priceless saxophone work ever laid down on this oft-played tune.
The title track drips with blues so deep that the smell of cigarette smoke wafting over the room is almost palpable. Audience members can be heard to shout encouragement as Pepper simmers and burns into a full boil. The effort and sweat going into this performance is apparent as he pours all of his breath though the reed. It's one of those perfect musical statements that could never have been captured in any studio. The immediacy and emotion of the moment are so boldly displayed that it could only have been possible through the energy of a live crowd. Blues for the Fisherman
presents two unedited evenings of performance and may be one of the most important archival jazz releases of the year. Pepper's widow, Laurie, is actively enhancing his legacy by releasing previously unheard live recordings. If there are more dates like these lurking in the vault, each one will be a cause for celebration among Art Pepper's fans.