Laurie Pepper expands upon the legend of her late husband, Art Pepper
, with the release of Atlanta
. The eleventh edition in her Widow's Taste series of uncovered treasures finds the alto saxophonist at an unspecified jazz club in Atlanta, Georgia, during the spring of 1980. Firmly planted in his comeback era, Pepper found comfort and familiarity in the use of two very different pianists. Although he preferred George Cables
, whom he tagged with the moniker "Mr. Beautiful," he was occasionally accompanied by Bulgarian refugee Milcho Leviev
, mostly when Cables was unavailable. Such was the case in this instance. Drummer Carl Burnett
, who performs on this live set, possessed a tendency to instinctively grasp what was desired of him within the quartet and provide it with unflagging enthusiasm. It is no wonder then, that Pepper was inclined to utilize him as often as possible, especially during the final few years of his life. Meanwhile, bassist Bob Magnusson
, last heard way back on the fifth entry in this series, brings the same warm and stately tone he did on that and other efforts produced with the band.
Pepper was fiercely competitive and a good bit insecure, but he was generous with his sidemen. Magnusson, for instance, is allotted nearly two minutes to solo in addition to other moments of prominence during the quartet's recital of "Landscape." Considering the familiarity of a group which had toured internationally, their transitions into and away from each other's improvisations are provided with proper flourish and without jarring effect. Atlanta
offers a restored and mostly complete account of their triumphs that evening. Sadly, it is Magnusson who provides the final seconds of the album, as an equipment malfunction caused the recording to cut off their performance, thirteen minutes into "Mambo Koyama." A gentle fade-out is mercifully affixed to its impromptu conclusion, and reason stands that it is better to have the nearly complete song than not at all, if only for historical purposes. Possibly even more important to those with an ear for historical content, all of the altoist's banter is left mercifully intact between songs, finding him both coherent and personable.
Due to the age of the source material and the lack of professional recording equipment, Atlanta
doesn't boast the most impressive audio quality in Pepper's growing catalogue of unearthed material, but is quite far from the worst. Burnett's drums occasionally erupt into brief bursts of static, and Leviev is heard to the rear and sometimes right of the soundstage, while Pepper himself occasionally drifts to the left from the fore. Magnusson, however, could not sound clearer, and Atlanta
shines a light on the contributions of an underappreciated musician from the time period. Although the audio quality of these releases tends to vary, the playing does not, and they could very well be thought of as a sort of jazz archaeology.
By the time "Avalon" appears, twenty minutes into Atlanta
's lavish two hour runtime (it is a two disc set), those issues seem to become less noticeable. Pepper and Leviev come clearer into focus, illuminating plainly how comfortable the two, especially the former, seem on stage. He attacks the tune with his usual ardor, banking on the rhythm section to lay a cool, west-coast vibe beneath his articulations. Those who gravitate toward conversational jam sessions in the traditional jazz quartet setting will likely be in heaven for this and much of the album.
Milcho Leviev received a special dedication in the liner notes to Atlanta
, making it clear that the album was an appreciation for the pianist and what he raised in Art Pepper. On the stage, Leviev was in many ways a mischievous devil, goading and urging the saxophonist. Whereas Pepper often seemed to propel the aforementioned George Cables to greater heights, sharing a respectful yet still superior stage relationship with his friend, Leviev often irked Pepper with overly aggressive showmanship and plays for the spotlight. When questioned about this habit some time later, the pianist simply claimed "I knew what I was doing but I couldn't stop. It's like I was possessed by some demon."
That evil spirit is rarely if at all present here, and Leviev has gorgeous, lengthy soloing opportunities on "The Trip" as well as sole command of the stage for a time during their interpretation of "Avalon." One can, however, sense a slight reluctance to relinquish the lead at times, just as it seems possible that on the latter tune, Pepper finds himself somewhat beguiled by the bombastic contributions of Carl Burnett; these for the most part are the minute office politics of a jazz band only recognizable to those for whom these musicians are a fascination.
The biggest draw that Atlanta
holds for those particular listeners, however, is inevitably going to be a rare performance of "Patricia," which is likely Art Pepper's finest composition; a searing ballad, structured traditionally with a gradual increase of tension that culminates in a predictable yet satisfying denouement. There has not yet been a subpar rendition of this song, and the one included with this release is every bit as breathtaking as those found on such albums as Today
(Galaxy, 1979) and Live in Japan
(Storyville, 1978). For thirteen minutes, Pepper's saxophone seems to speak solely and intimately to each member of his audience, sharing with them the personal anguish of conceiving a daughter whose love and respect would elude the troubled artist permanently. Deeply moving as it is, what this quartet has crafted is as good an example as there exists of what defines music as a form of art.
At one point in their set, Pepper addresses what had been noticed by his audiences at the time and has become glaringly obvious to his fans decades later; he rarely, if ever, plays other artist's work:
"A lot of people have asked me...how come I play so much of my own tunes? And I just tell them that the only way to present a person is, really is to have them write their own music and play their own music."
This certainly was to the benefit of those who sat in the smoke-filled jazz clubs he headlined during the late seventies and early eighties, as it allowed the altoist to delve deeper into his own catalogue of work on a nightly basis. For instance, the quartet's rendition of his "Song For Richard" receives a treatment here unlike any it has previously, with a surprising and pleasantly unconventional avant-garde introduction and a structure that is far from predictable.
In retrospect however, there is enough repetition to occasionally give listeners a bit of frustration at times. Some of his compositions, most notably "Blues For Blanche," appear more than a handful of times between this release, Promise Kept
(Omnivore, 2019), and Blues For The Fisherman
(Widow's Taste, 2011), among others. Yet this repetition is a small grievance compared to the alternate and very near possibility of never having been gifted with these uncovered and restored performances at all. Art Pepper's loyal followers have come to anticipate a new volume each year, as has been the habit of his widow for more than a decade now. Each of these albums is a small treasure to behold, well deserving of greater fanfare than it receives. As it stands, those followers will patiently wait to discover what else the saxophonist left behind. Perhaps with some luck they will finally receive the Maiden Voyage box set they have been yearning for. Until then however, Atlanta
and its predecessors will do nicely.
Blues for Blanche;
Talk: Intros and about "Blanche";
Talk: How come you don't play standards?;
Talk: Intros & about "Patricia";
Talk: Bullet Train;
Talk: New Book;
Straight Life ;
TALK: Intros; Milcho Escapes from Bulgaria;
A Song for Richard;
Talk: Swing Journal;
Mambo Koyama (incomplete);
A Taste: Avalon;
A Taste: Mambo Koyama;
A Taste: Patricia;
A Taste: The Trip.