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Art Pepper: Promise Kept: The Complete Artists House Recordings

Peter Hoetjes By

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A Man and His Word

Art Pepper's career as an alto saxophonist is often said to exist in two eras, separated by incarceration and marriage, joined together by a penchant for substance abuse. In 1952, Pepper was a young jazzman on the rise in a world where John Coltrane and Miles Davis had yet to become household names. This era, which gained substantial steam with the release of The Art Pepper Quartet (Tampa, 1956), was one where he laid the foundation of what would later become staples in his repertoire, such as "Patricia" and "Mambo de la Pinta." In as many ways as there are possible, it was a shame that 'later' would not come for fifteen years.

Some stereotypes endure regardless of race, religion, or provenance, and the cliche of the addict with a horn is one of them. Pepper had a complicated relationship with heroin, among other things, which during the 1950s and 1960s would contribute to his repeated incarcerations. These stints in the California prison system kept his budding career as a jazz musician from sustaining momentum. Although he would release albums continuously until the end of the fifties, he wasn't afforded an opportunity to build a consistent band around himself at this time. Following his final release from San Quentin in 1965, he stopped recording entirely. Drug abuse also contributed to his meeting the woman who would become his third and final wife, in the Synanon rehabilitation center. She would be the driving force behind what is referred to as later-era Art Pepper. Laurie Pepper was the woman behind the curtain; she pushed her husband, a man convinced of his genius yet maligned with neuroticism and self-neglect, to do what he did best. With Laurie, he had someone to prop him up on stage after stage, and care for the business aspect of being a musician.

Art Pepper bookended the gap in his career with a handful of releases on Les Koenig's Contemporary label. From 1975 until the producer's death in 1977 he'd record three studio albums for Koenig, who was a loyal ally, and very aware of the talent he had back in his stable. In the final year of his life he introduced Pepper to John Snyder, who had just started a record label of his own, named Artist's House. Snyder coaxed Pepper into touring again, and provided him with a friend who was neither a musician, wife, nor junkie. In the summer of that year, he convinced Koenig to allow him to record the altoist in New York, at the famed Village Vanguard. Wily as he was, Koenig acquiesced, but did so under his own label. The result was a series of dates which were originally cut into four separate albums but later released in their entirety as The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions (Contemporary, 1995). This production was a crowning moment for Pepper, considered by many to be his greatest achievement. Pepper however, did not forget his friend John Snyder, for whom he had promised to record an album when finished touring.

He kept that promise, recording for Snyder between February and November of 1979, at studios in New York and his home state of California. Though only a single album was released on the Artists House label, three more were produced from the sessions and issued by both Galaxy Records and on the Victor label in the 1980s.

Any healthy employer-employee relationship relies on a well balanced scale of using. An employee uses the person who hires them to make money and ply their trade. An employer gains a relationship with a person who can provide them with a service they cannot or will not perform themselves. When the balance of power rests too heavily upon one side of that scale, someone is sure to feel taken advantage of. But, when both people are using each other on an even scale, the relationship is a beneficial one, where everyone involved is content.

Art Pepper's relationship with John Snyder was definitely a beneficial one.

Perhaps it was the fact that Snyder apparently thought the world of Pepper's playing. He was a self-admitted fan. Perhaps it was the way that Artist's House dealt with musicians, reportedly offering them a good deal of freedom in the studio. Perhaps it was just good timing. Regardless, their meeting was a fortunate one for both men, whose legacies are more than a little influenced by the outcome of that relationship; this box set of fifty recordings.

Looking Inside the Music Box

Promise Kept: The Complete Artist's House Recordings is a five album set, containing all four produced from the aforementioned dates, as well as a fifth, simply titled Sessions, which is comprised of additional and alternate takes. While some of the bonus material making up this collection has been released before on the Widow's Taste label or The Complete Galaxy Recordings, having the entirety of Art Pepper's work from the 1979 Artists House sessions gathered in one place is convenient, not to even mention how rare it is to get one's hands on that latter set. All in all, nineteen unreleased recordings are included, spread throughout four albums before the final ten are collected on the bonus disc.

The physical release of Promise Kept takes the form of a small cardboard box housing five sleeves which contain each disc, with the original artwork for each album reprinted on the sleeves. Artworks, New York Album, and Stardust retain their 1980s art deco inspired Galaxy/Victor covers, while the Sessions sleeve attempts to reproduce the style of So In Love, which was the sole album officially released on the Artists House label. The only gripe to be had with the set is how miniscule the typeface is printed on the back of each sleeve. Even those whose eyesight is impeccable (this writer included) will strain to read the words not in bold print.

There is absolutely no doubt that Art Pepper would not have had the energy and confidence required to mount the ambitious comeback he did for the last seven years of his life without the support (both literally and figuratively) of his wife Laurie Pepper. This second wind carried his name to a place where it may confidently be uttered in the same breath as those who influenced him, such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Lester Young, and Lee Konitz. Mrs. Pepper saw fit to include a series of photographs with the liner notes, written in her typical wry nostalgic tone. Her efforts continue to keep Pepper's music relevant, releasing new albums under her own label each year, mostly of unearthed performances from this period of his career.

Collaborative Effort

Art Pepper was fortunate to work with some of the finest jazz musicians of the late seventies/early eighties time period, and the Promise Kept recordings are no exception. They can really be broken down into two portions; those with the New York band Snyder had assembled, and those with Pepper's more familiar Los Angeles band.

The east coast musicians he worked with, pianist Hank Jones, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Foster, were all top-level performers at the time. That said, even listeners unfamiliar with Pepper's work should be able to discern a sense that things didn't mesh perfectly with this group. While Foster in particular added a distinctive sound to his contributions here, and has gained lasting respect as one of jazz's premier drummers, Jones and Carter (most notably the former) occasionally seem combative. Though it's impossible to deny their individual strengths, as one cohesive unit it seems as if either they were attempting to keep up with Pepper, or he was struggling to merge his voice with theirs.

This is not to suggest that the songs he played with this band are sub-par. Though there was a feeling of tension within the band at this time, it is only the readily available comparison to Pepper's output with Promise Kept's second lineup which affords such a critical eye. While they hold up, there are just less moments of amazement procured from these recordings, at times making them more of a jam session than a transfixing experience.

The west coast group, on the other hand, was built on a much more familiar foundation. Charlie Haden, who had played with the altoist for a few brief weeks during the 1950s, returned for his comeback album Living Legend (Contemporary, 1975). Though the bassist would not rejoin Pepper in the studio after 1979, their chemistry was excellent. Billy Higgins was one of the genre's most prolific drummers, recording on hundreds of albums, yet despite the fact that his work stretched far, its quality never suffered. He filled Elvin Jones' daunting shoes admirably following the Vanguard dates, exhibiting a similar fervor but with an ease of familiarity Jones never quite had with Pepper.

The glue which binds the entirety of 'late period' Art Pepper however, is George Cables. The pianist featured on the vast majority of Pepper's albums and live appearances from 1975 to his death in 1982. Having just come off stints with Dexter Gordon and Woody Shaw, it was evident at the time that Cables greatest strength was an ability to mold his own playing style to that of differing band leaders. The advantage of hindsight has only proven this more obvious, as listeners have now heard him go on to play alongside Frank Morgan, Bud Shank, and the Cookers supergroup. Important to note is that his style doesn't lose any of its character in these settings, and seasoned ears will be able to pick out recordings he contributed to without consulting liner notes. Playing with Pepper was existing on a stage where you didn't know exactly where he was going to go with a song, but if you could roll with whatever he did, magic had a way of happening. This was where George Cables excelled, playing ballads at a delicate pace before furiously cranking out innovative performances. His playing at this period was less polished than it would later become during his solo career, yet somehow that rawness serves him, imbuing these sessions (as well as others of the era) with a sense of urgency.

Delving Into Promise Kept

So In Love

All four of the albums housed in the Promise Kept box are presented as they originally were when released in the 1980s, albeit with bonus tracks attached to the end of them. So In Love was pieced together with a combination of both bands mentioned above. Mixing two different sets of backing musicians to produce an album was not an uncommon approach in the era, and while a lineup of tracks from different dates allows for a record label to assemble the strongest (or only) release possible, this sort of band mash-up typically results in an inconsistent one. That said, all but the most discerning ear will likely not be too perturbed by the switch. Admittedly, both groups sound wonderful here, and John Snyder had clearly picked some of the best performances available for inclusion.

In the liner notes, Laurie Pepper bemoans the fact that she hears "the annoying jittery energy with which the New York band attempts to make a ballad 'interesting.'" Her husband's approach to ballads was a very old-fashioned one, but not for the same reasons artists held in the pre-hard-bop days. Rather than as a necessary component of getting people to dance cheek to cheek, he saw ballads as an empty canvas. He seemed to use them as a catharsis, painting them with his personal agonies and pleasures. This was never more obvious than in live performances, wherein listeners would hear him emote in ways similar to a vocalist. The altoist had many strengths, but perhaps his greatest of all was one which had likely made his own personal life more difficult. He could change temperaments instantly, one moment cranking out a frustrated sounding take on the title track, the next crooning a heart-rending "Diane." What's funny is how Pepper's late period playing is remembered by most as manic or unhinged. While this likely owes some credit to the Vanguard Sessions being his most well known work, this particular set offers a more balanced look at the artist.

Much of So In Love's merit is owed to the strength of its final two songs. Regardless of any criticism the New York band might have received, their performance of Pepper's own "Diane" is exemplary; the pinnacle of their efforts. "Stardust" follows much in the same vein. It's a different song with a different band, and though it was the one chosen first out of its three appearances in the sessions, the same group's performances of the song on this set's album of the same title sound a bit more inspired.

After finishing the original setup in such a satisfyingly wilting, mellow fashion, it almost seems a shame to continue into the three bonus tracks. "Yesterdays," which is definitely the song Mrs. Pepper was referring to with her aforementioned lament, is yet another ballad, but on numerous occasions the band can be heard fighting the tempo. This is most obvious during Jones' piano solo. It still makes for an interesting performance, but it's a shame that in this case that energy detracted from the song, rather than adding to it as in "Diane." They sound much more engaged during Pepper's own "Landscape," in which they seem to enjoy the challenge presented by his twists and turns. The final bonus is another take on the song which opened the album, Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser." It's a couple minutes longer and a bit edgier than the earlier presentation. It's also one of the previously unissued tracks built into Promise Kept, and one of the handful that are almost equally as excellent as those which were originally chosen.

Artworks

In comparison to So In Love's relatively straightforward approach, Artworks has an intriguing structure. Recorded entirely with the west coast band, Pepper opens the album with a solo rendition of the standard "Body and Soul," before taking up the clarinet and leaving his pianist behind for "Anthropologie." This puts much more weight on Charlie Haden's shoulders, who accompanies Pepper's lead more prominently than he will at any other time during the course of Promise Kept. This is especially true for the second look listeners get at the tune in the bonus material on the disc, which further cuts Billy Higgins drums, making it a duet. It's a unique idea, but easy to decipher why this was left out of the original pressing, as without a percussionist the song asks too much of Haden while losing its pace.

Quite interestingly, Pepper had previously played the tune almost exactly two decades earlier with Marty Paich's big band on Art Pepper + Eleven: Modern Jazz Classics (Contemporary, 1960), one of the more well-received albums of his early period. Though the bouncy melody remains largely the same, a much different tact is taken here, as his supporting cast is narrowed considerably.

That cast reproduces Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Desafinado" with all it's latin-tinged rhythm, adding a bit of character to Artworks without departing with its sense of coherence. Running through this, as well as Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," the comfort this particular group has with each other becomes strikingly obvious.

Another alto solo of "You Go To My Head" serves as a prelude to the sole Pepper original, "Blues For Blanche." This would be a familiar tune for him toward the end of his life, playing it on numerous occasions as he sought to perfect his own composition. Its appearance here is more restrained than it would be on future occasions, such as during his evenings at London's Ronnie Scotts club, which were released as Blues For the Fisherman (Widows Taste, 2011).

The bonus material for the album consists of five alternate takes of its songs. The extras on this disc don't really add anything memorable to Artworks, and in the case of "Desafinado's" alternate take, the audio is a bit inferior, but they certainly don't detract from what is one of Art Pepper's more pleasant and relaxed offerings.

New York Album

If it weren't obvious enough, New York Album is the only one in the collection constructed entirely with the east coast band Snyder had put together. It's easy to tell that he was trying to capture the Manhattan vibe with this one, and somehow songs like 'Duo Blues," the second and final duo in the set, manage to do just that.

Momentarily shelving the energy brought to "A Night In Tunisia," Art Pepper demonstrates a mastery of understatement. So sparse and undemanding is his solo take on "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)," the tune Charlie Parker brought to jazz, that it seems to hang in the air for the brief moment before "Straight, No Chaser" swings into the speakers.

New York Album comes to an inspired finish with "My Friend John," an ode to the man who orchestrated these recording sessions. Pepper's lines whirl about with complete freedom; not one false note is rendered because to him, it seems, there can be no deception in expressing so simple a muse as sincerity. More than on any other track, this is where the New York band is at their best. It adheres to structure without pretension or feeling forced, and Hank Jones' extended piano solo is wonderful to behold; full of vigorous character. This tune, written just before the Vanguard dates out of a gratefulness to Snyder for his support and encouragement, is one of Pepper's most important compositions, both playful and spirited. He had toyed with its arrangement and tempo at those dates, but by now, two years later, the altoist had it perfected.

The extras on New York Album include "Johnny's Blues," a saxophone solo which featuring two false starts left in, and a frustrated yet patient Pepper who can almost be heard shaking his head when stating "I've got to do another one." Keen eared listeners will be able to pick up the barely audible sound of either a slight echo in the studio, or someone else playing a horn nearby, although the former is the more likely scenario. Aside from this very worthwhile and otherwise unheard of original composition, the bonus tracks are just second cuts from the album, standard for reissues of vintage releases. This bonus material is a boon for collectors and aficionados. With that said, Promise Kept's greatest value will be to those who have yet to experience Art Pepper's albums contrived from the Artists House sessions. To them, this box will likely be either a gateway to more of the altoist's work, or hours of listening pleasure in which they had yet to partake.

Stardust

The final 'regular' album in the set begins with the same song which capped off the previous one. "My Friend John" appears for the third and final time, save for a pair of false starts included in the Sessions disc. This recording of Pepper's composition is given the benefit of a second perspective, having been performed by the west coast band this time. Though he may change his pitch just slightly, it's the sidemen here who thoroughly shake things up. The west coast band does away with much of the funky flavor brought to the previous version. Hank Jones had preferred to play it at a much lower key than Cables, which somehow had the effect of giving the song more bounce, and while Cables doesn't quite match the rhythm of their version, his solo is equally inventive. "My Friend John" is one of the instances where having multiple takes of a song is beneficial, giving it an entirely new character with the same melody.

Pepper played Tin Tin Deo" once before, on Meets the Rhythm Section (Contemporary, 1957). Here, the latin vibe is held mostly by Billy Higgins but is otherwise given to the wayside in favor of a more explorative approach than the one taken with Miles Davis' sidemen on that album. Having recorded with some of the most legendary names in the business, Higgins had a great deal of experience fitting into new bands as if he had been there all along. His drumming is never combative with the rest of the group; it neither overshadows Pepper's lead nor the contributions of Cables and Haden. His intuitive grasp of the tempo Pepper was seeking in every instance is just a piece of what made this particular lineup so special.

Stardust's place among the rest of the set is a unique one. It is the only album in which the pool of bonus material is larger than that of the album itself. This is not a negative aspect in Stardust's case; in fact just two of the extras are alternate takes, while two are solos which follow the title track.

Promise Kept offers a bit of insight into Pepper's mind as he went about his return to music, specifically his somewhat wavering conviction to once again take up the clarinet, which was his first instrument before settling for the alto saxophone. By his own dejected admission, he apparently sometimes felt his performances on the instrument weren't good enough. At one point on Blues For The Fisherman (Widows Taste, 2011), he exasperatedly claims the audience "will never hear [him] play a clarinet again," reasoning that "it just isn't loud enough" for him. Any self-doubt he harbored however, was in vain. Much like the solos which appeared on Artworks, those here serve as a source of character for Stardust as well as providing a welcome reprieve from the large quantity of songs included, especially when considering the energy brought to them by both bands.

Interestingly enough two of the solo tracks were recorded at a separate time and at a completely different studio in New York than anything else on Promise Kept, though the reasoning for this isn't explained. Beyond those solos it's notable that the alternate take of the title track is perhaps gentler and more beautiful than the previous one. Pepper and company are given an extra four minutes to stretch out, and Cables in particular, playing off Higgins' cymbals, just nails the misty-eyed romanticism of Hoagy Carmichael's song about the sad, haunting memory of love.

Sessions

As the Promise Kept bonus disc, Sessions contains eleven tracks taken from the L.A. recordings. Most of these should be filed under 'For Completists Only," as it contains not only three false starts (two in a row for "My Friend John"), but three unused alternates of "Blues For Blanche," Pepper's musical dedication to his cat. As he would amusingly put it when introducing the song a few years down the line, "Those people who are really happening are into cats, 'cause that's where it's at." It would become one of the most played of his original songs during this period, especially in live sets.

The real value to be found in Sessions is in its desire not to be a formal album, but rather a casual look at Pepper in the studio. All three of the false starts included feature Pepper audibly laughing at his mistakes; at one point you can hear the band chuckling along with him as he jokes, "Aww, I fucked it up." The extra material here paints a picture of the recording process, at least in May of 1979, as upbeat. For those amateur historians who are fascinated with jazz antiquity, this only increases that value. Laurie Pepper has not been shy about offering fans her husband's vocal introductions to songs, or post-performance comments when available, especially for live recordings. These snippets tend to draw the listener in to the musicians' circle, creating a more intimate link between artist and audience.

This isn't meant to imply that the disc doesn't offer any simple listening pleasure. Takes of "Donna Lee" and "Yesterdays" are lovely and worthwhile, but overall the best leftover material from these relatively prodigious recordings was used to fill in the previous four albums. The exception is its finale, an alternate sax take on "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)," which is sort of like saving a little slice of the best for last. Pepper aficionados will appreciate the inclusion of this disc, which elevates the set above a simple box holding the albums, to a truly 'complete' compilation.

Renaissance Men

Jazz exists now in a time when musicians who progress it forward are counterbalanced by a huge market for unearthed vintage performances and albums. The two years which precede Promise Kept: The Complete Artists House Recordings saw numerous high profile releases of music from the fifties through the seventies. Erroll Garner, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and even Pepper himself have been mined for nostalgia and the public's fascination with the titans of the hard bop era.

This box set is a valuable addition to that list. It is Art Pepper in what seems to be a rare moment of relaxation. Don't mistake this for a lack of creative zeal -the altoist was undoubtedly peaking at the close of the 1970s. Neither teetering on the edge of the blade as he was in the Vanguard Sessions, nor as composed as at the Maiden Voyage two years later, the music Pepper recorded for John Snyder's fledgling Artists House record label offers a valuable glimpse into the life of one of the genres greatest saxophonists. His fervorous output toward the end of that life was the result of a man who was afraid his legacy would be forgotten, a fate which is now inconceivable. Regardless of where listeners place it among his work, one thing is for certain:

Promise Kept is the definitive collection of these sessions.

Track Listing: CD1 (So In Love): Straight, No Chaser (take 3); Blues For Blanche; So In Love; Diane; Stardust; Yesterdays (take 2); Landscape; Straight, No Chaser (take 4).


CD2 (Artworks): Body and Soul; Anthropology (take2); Desafinado (take 2); Donna Lee; You Go To My Head; Blues For Blanche (alternate a); Desafinado (take 1); Anthropology (take 1); Donna Lee (alternate a); Blues For Blanche (alternate b); You Go To My Head (alternate a).
CD3 (New York Album): A Night In Tunisia (take 2); Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be); Straight, No Chaser (take 2); Duo Blues; My Friend John; Johnny's Blues; A Night in Tunisia (take 1); Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be) (clarinet); Straight, No Chaser (take 1); My Friend John (alternate b).
CD4 (Stardust): My Friend John (alternate a); Tin Tin Deo; Stardust (alternate a); In A Mellow Tone (take 2); Art's Sweet Blues; But Beautiful (take 1); You Go To My Head (alternate b); Yesterdays (take 3); Stardust (alternate b); In A Mellow Tone (take 1).
CD5 (Sessions): Blues For Blanche (alternate c); Yesterdays (take 1); My Friend John (take 1 - long false start); My Friend John (take 2 - long false start); Blues For Blanche (alterdate d); Stardust (long false start); Donna Lee (alternate b); But Beautiful (take 2); A Night In Tunisia (take 3); Blues For Blanche (alternate e); Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be) (alternate sax take).

Personnel: Art Pepper: alto saxophone (CD1-5), clarinet (CD2#2, #8, CD3#8); Hank Jones: piano (CD1#1#4#6#7, CD3#1-3, #5-10); Ron Carter: bass (CD1#1#4#6#7, CD3); Al Foster: drums (CD1#1#4#6#7, CD3#1-3, #5-10); George Cables: piano (CD1#2#3#5, CD2#1#3-7#9-11, CD4, CD5); Charlie Haden: bass (CD1#2#3#5, CD2, CD4, CD5) Billy Higgins: drums (CD1#2#3#5, CD2#1#3-7#9-11, CD4, CD5)

Title: Promise Kept: The Complete Artists House Recordings | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Omnivore Recordings

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