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Art Pepper: Neon Art: Volume 3

C. Michael Bailey By

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This concludes the Neon Art series, whose life began as three vinyl LP releases in 2012. Wisely, Pepper's widow, Laurie Pepper and co-producer Cheryl Pawelski decided to re-issue these performances on CD. Neon Art, Volume 1 and Neon Art, Volume 2 preceded Volume 3 in as many months.

The Neon Art performances are not perfect artifacts of jazz music. They run long or are cut off short. There are screeches and honks, wrong notes and miscues. What it is, is honest. By the times these pieces were recorded in 1981, Pepper was six years into his comeback and was reaching his zenith, his Gotterdammerung of the jazz life. Recorded during his 1981 tour of Japan, where he was revered as a musical giant, Pepper was less than a year away from his end. His playing eclipsed that of his "dry ice" cool days in the 1950s. This was a wholly different musical animal that made this music. Driven, maniacal, ego-centric, Pepper was pushing all of the boundaries of his capabilities.

Pepper's quartet here is the same as in Volume 2. Drummer Carl Burnette was present throughout most of Pepper's return. His favorite pianist, "Mr. Beautiful" George Cables anchored the quartet with bassist David Williams. This recording is made up of three lengthy performances: Pepper's "Make a List (Make a Wish)" the standard "Everything Happens to Me" and another Pepper original, "Arthur's Blues." For completeness, "Everything Happens to Me" is a perfect ballad vehicle for Pepper and he plays it sans the self-pity that characterized Bill Evans' recordings of the same song (both Pepper and Evans sharing a common heroin addiction). Pepper exposes himself selflessly, even if he was not aware he was doing so. "Arthur's Blues" demonstrates the West Coast icon's capacity to capture this old style in ways dramatically different from Charlie Parker. Pepper's blues are sophisticated and complicated. They build on the earthiness of Parker, creating country cathedrals of sound.

Central to this disc is Pepper's exceptional "Make a List (Make a Wish)." Like with Volume 2, this performance offers a grand juxtaposition of two late Pepper rhythm sections. The definitive performance of "Make a List (Make a Wish)" was recorded at Croydon, England, May 14, 1981 with Belgian pianist Milcho Leviev and bassist Bob Magnusson. The comparison could not be more starkly opposed. The Volume 3 performance was recorded November 13, 1981, six months after the Croydon concert. The effect of Cables on Pepper was always great. Pepper loved Cables and Cables provided Pepper a safe place to improvise. Not so with Leviev. While Pepper loved Leviev, both me clashed like the iconoclasts they are. This difference is borne out in the performance of this piece.

In the spring of 1981, Pepper, with Cables and Williams, delivered a prim, almost Victorian performance of this complex and rewarding composition. It is precise, accurate and slightly stilted. Pepper raises the heat and twelve minutes in, everyone is warmed up. Pepper and Cables perform a soul-jazz chamber piece. What the Pepper-Leviev-Magnusson combination did was detonate a jazz atom bomb what could not possibly be understood without the Pepper-Cables-Williams performance. Clearly, the Croydon performance is superior with Magnusson's fat, elastic bass and Leviev's total disregard for Pepper's feeling. Where Cables petted Pepper, Leviev goosed him, grabbing his balls and giving a firm squeeze. The result was phenomenal. But it could not have been without what preceded it.

Track Listing: Make a List (Make a Wish); Everything Happens to Me; Arthur’s Blues.

Personnel: Art Pepper: alto saxophone; George Cables: piano; David Williams: bass; Carl Burnett: drums.

Title: Neon Art: Volume 3 | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Omnivore Records

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