Aside from serving as a casebook study in self–destructive behavior, Art Pepper was one of the most consistently brilliant saxophonists ever to emerge from the so–called West Coast school of Jazz. The well–named Hollywood All–Star Sessions,
on which he performed as a “sideman,” were recorded in 1979–82, the last of them (with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz) only five months before Art’s passing at age 56 in June ’82. Although he was depicted as no more than a member of the various ensembles (Pepper’s contract with Galaxy Records forbade his recording for other labels as a leader), everyone involved including those from the undersized Japanese Atlas label who proposed and produced the sessions knew Art was the de facto
foreman, as he chose most of the personnel, approved the playlists and was paid more than the other musicians even though his name and photo couldn’t be larger on the album covers than anyone else’s. The story of these opulent sessions and Pepper’s involvement in them is graphically recounted by his widow, Laurie, in the booklet that accompanies the superlative five–disc set. According to Laurie, Art loved being sheltered within the group. “When Art was the leader,” she writes, “everything was too important. . . .Each performance, each recording was his last word, letting the world know just how good he finally was. . . .But as a sideman Art was calm. He was cheery. He was docile and selfless — relieved not to be the one responsible for how things went. And the results, if not ‘different’ and surprising, were often wonderful. Wonderful is what these sessions are. They were conceived of as a trick, a lie, and Art, though he knew better, could persuade himself to believe the lie — that he was just a sideman — and relax.” What the producers wanted to do, she writes, was recreate the “West Coast sound” of the ’50s, which the Japanese loved and which sold well in that country. But “at the sessions,” she asserts, “Art didn’t really play as he had 20, 30 years earlier. It wasn’t in him to imitate anyone, even himself.” So what we hear on these fifty–two tracks (including nine alternate takes) is vintage late–period Pepper — loose, relaxed yet sharply focused in the company of front–liners Bill Watrous, Jack Sheldon, Sonny Stitt, Bob Cooper and Lee Konitz backed by a bevy of world–class rhythm sections. Relaxed and focused, that is, save for the first of two sessions with Stitt, which Laurie Pepper describes as rather disastrous. Two days before the session, she writes, Art “accidentally cut the middle finger of his left hand deeply with a knife. (I’d grown to expect to see Art’s blood spilled, almost ritually, on big occasions.)” On top of that, she avers, one of Pepper’s groupies showed up, uninvited, with drugs and alcohol, which Art gladly accepted. As a result, Laurie writes, the session “has its moments, no doubt about it, when it swings like mad and takes your breath away, but both musicians seem to be having a bad day . . .” Art had a much better day with Stitt the second time around, returning to the studio two days later to play songs not associated with bebop, chaperoned by a more compatible rhythm section (pianist Russ Freeman and bassist John Heard sitting in for Lou Levy and Chuck Domanico, drummer Carl Burnett returning from the first session). Watrous and Sheldon are able partners on Sessions 1 and 2, the first with Freeman, Burnett and bassist Bob Magnusson, the second with Burnett, bassist Tony Dumas and Pepper's regular pianist, Milcho Leviev. Art is alone out front on Session 3, a quartet date recorded in February 1980, almost a year after Session 1 but less than a week after the second, with Magnusson, pianist Pete Jolly and drummer Roy McCurdy (released as Strike Up the Band: Pete Jolly and His West Coast Friends
). The two sessions with Stitt, which encompass the last seven tracks on Disc 3 and the first four on Disc 4, are followed by a sextet date from May '81 with Pepper, Watrous and Bob Cooper in the foreground and Jolly, bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Shelly Manne stoking the furnace. On Session 6, recorded in January '82, Pepper is teamed with the always resourceful Lee Konitz, a modest and self-critical iconoclast with whom, says Laurie, Art was happy to play. "Lee mostly chose the tunes," she writes. "Art and I chose the rhythm section [Magnusson, pianist Mike Lang, drummer John Dentz]." The result is another admirable session, the only one in which Pepper and Konitz appear together on record. Returning for a moment to the first date with Stitt, Sonny seems to be his usual imperious and combative self (he was never one to show mercy to an adversary), and if Art was having a "bad day," we should all have bad days like that. True, he is a touch more strident and less assured than usual, but how he managed to play so reasonably well in such wretched (and self-inflicted) circumstances remains a mystery. Art and Sonny square off again on Disc 4, trading altos for tenors on "Lester Leaps In," an epic struggle whose outcome is too close to call. Art has the last two selections, "My Funny Valentine" and "Imagination," to himself. Cooper's warm, playful tenor lends a buoyancy to Session 5 (five selections on Disc 4, two on Disc 5) that is all but irresistible. Of Coop, Laurie writes, "Art adored him for his personal and musical sweetness, and his mellowness inflects all the players at this session." More a team effort than the other dates, it opens, as had Session 1, with a go-for-broke reading of "Just Friends" and includes the lovely ballad "These Foolish Things," sparkling versions of "Limehouse Blues" and "Lover, Come Back to Me," the blasé "Hollywood Jam Blues" and two takes of Tommy Dorsey's theme, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." That leads us to Session 6, on which Konitz's cool, elliptical style complements perfectly his partner's more visceral approach. Art actually seems more relaxed in Konitz's presence, and trades alto for clarinet on "The Shadow of Your Smile." Everyone who is fortunate enough to hear these exemplary sessions will no doubt adopt his or her favorite among them; mine is the quartet date on which Pepper, unimpeded by rivalries and invigorated by a sturdy rhythm section, is securely in command and swings like there's no tomorrow - although I must confess a special fondness for the last two as well, owing to the towering presence of Cooper and Konitz. As Laurie Pepper notes in referring to Art's pairing with Sonny Stitt, each session "has its moments," and her summary is squarely on target: "Right concept, right people, right place, right tunes, right time. And what a joy this music is to listen to - over and over and over again."
Contact:Galaxy Records, Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710. Web site, www.fantasyjazz.com