Jazz Review: Art Pepper 5-CD Release

Category: Music

Jazz Review: “Art Pepper: The Hollywood All-Star Sessions”
Performance: 9-10
Recording quality: 9

During the 1970s, the Seattle Opera was one of the few places in the world where one could hear the complete Wagner “Ring” cycle over a 2-week period. My mother, who was a music and voice major at the University of Washington, and an opera lover, encouraged me to attend one of the complete cycles, and I subsequently found the experience deeply moving. The cumulative effect of all of the operas, heard sequentially, is synergistic, with the powerful sum far greater than the parts alone. The same is true of the recordings I will review here.

Art Pepper is probably my favorite alto sax player, and I have many of his recordings dating from his first solos from his early days with the Stan Kenton Band, up to his last sessions in 1982. Pepper is most associated with the West Coast “cool” school of jazz, but his playing was individualistic, combining elements of the Swing tradition with bebop into a unique style that reflected the styles of other players such as Zoot Sims, Lee Konitz, and, later in life, John Coltrane.

Pepper’s style of playing was among the hottest of any of the West Coast jazz musicians. The following quote from Mark Gridley’s book titled “Jazz Styles” provides a good description of the way Pepper played:
“In his playing there is a more of a cry than was ordinarily found in West Coast “cool” saxophonists. Another central difference is his sense of urgency and rhythmic variety. Pepper pushed hard on the beat. He favored short, staccato bursts of notes, many of which were grouped in triplets. Sometimes he tore off a double-time figure in a tight, crisp manner. Pepper used brief, funky phrases that were abruptly stated with searing emotion. Infact, his emotionality is prized by many fans. The emotional range of his playing runs from a joyous swing feeling, particularly evident on medium and up-tempo pieces, to despondency on some ballad interpretations in which his playing is so slow it is almost as though he purposely drags to build tension, sounding almost too sad to play the next note.”

To Gridley’s remarks, I would add that Pepper’s playing, like most of the truly individual voices in jazz, is marked by a readily identifiable tone and phrasing. He makes use of recurrent phrases and themes, rather like the leitmotifs found in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Almost any serious fan of Pepper can tune into the middle of a recording by Pepper and immediately know to whom they are listening.

During the 1950’s, Pepper fell into heavy drug use, a problem which was to plague him throughout his career, and led to several periods in prison for drug violations followed by years of rehabilitation in drug treatment programs. The difficulties he faced during the 1950’s and 1960’s are poignantly described in his emotionally raw, direct autobiography, “Straight Life”, one of the most moving chronicles in the literature about jazz. The book provides an intimate and extraordinarily honest glimpse into Pepper’s life.

The recordings reviewed here were made during the last three years of Pepper’s life, from 1979 to 1982. Pepper had essentially disappeared from the jazz scene from the mid-1960’s until he began to resuscitate his musical career in 1975 with a series of appearances in New York City, coupled to recordings for the Galaxy label. The concept behind the “Hollywood All-Star Sessions” was proposed by Atlas, a small Japanese recording company. Atlas wanted to make contemporary versions of the recordings done by Pepper during the 1950’s, using the same West Coast (mostly Los Angeles-based) musicians featured on the original releases. This type of music sold very well with Japanese jazz fans that revered the American jazz recordings of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Pepper, however, was under contract to Galaxy, which prohibited him from making recordings as a leader. He could, however, play as a “sideman”, without violating his contract terms. Hence, for contractual reasons, Pepper made the recordings in this 5-CD set as a “sideman”, although he was always the leader on these dates. He chose the bands, OK’d the cuts, and was paid more than any other artist.

During the period between March, 1979, and January, 1982, a total of 5 recordings were produced and released, featuring many of the same people that played with Pepper during the 1950’s, as well as some new artists. The other artists included: Bill Watrous (trombone); Jack Sheldon (trumpet); Sonny Stitt (alto sax); Lee Konitz (alto sax); Bob Cooper (tenor sax); Russ Freeman (piano); Milcho Leviev (piano); Pete Jolly (piano); Bob Magnusson (bass); Carl Burnett (drums); and Shelly Manne (drums).

My reaction to listening to this boxed set of CD’s was similar to hearing the “Ring” cycle”: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, with each of the recordings building of the foundation of the previous disk. Pepper’s playing runs the full gamut of what made his artistic work so compelling, from joyous to wrenching, but all played with passion. In the excellent liner notes, written by his last wife, Laurie, it is noted that Pepper played differently as a sideman than when leading a group. He could feel more relaxed, rather than being solely responsible for the success of the session.

All of the recordings made during the 5 sessions are excellent, but my personal favorites are the recordings done with Jack Sheldon (trumpet), whose popularity has been limited mainly to California, Sonny Stitt (alto sax), and Lee Konitz (alto sax). During these sessions, Pepper’s playing is so open and frank that I thought at times that I was looking into the soul of another human being.

The following quotes from the liner notes by Laurie Pepper provide further insight into the sessions:

“Jack Sheldon is both crazy and affectionate, and he’s another bad boy and another REAL romantic. Sometimes when Art’s sax comes in on a recording, you’re aware of the sensation of your heart breaking before you realize that, no, it’s just Art’s voice. Jack’s got that, too, and not only is this my favorite session (of the 5 recordings), but “Historia de un Amor” (the 2nd track) is my favorite of all the songs, because they make it so affecting, so flagrantly romantic and sad.”

“The second Sonny Stitt session on the third day of recording was NOT a bebop session...It featured a medium-tempo blues riff, “Atlas Blues”, and a fun tenor romp, “Lester Leaps In”, in which both men just shine. The fours they trade, snapping at each other’s heels, and finally playing simultaneously, are amazing, thrilling, a great ride, more than worth the wait. I love Art’s playing on tenor. He’s all over the horn. He’s like a kid leaping around in his daddy’s clothes: strutting, belching, farting, spitting, swearing, big! .... If you are having trouble telling Art and Sonny apart, Art’s the one who does NOT sound like Bird (Charlie Parker). Sonny has the cutting, searing sound, always an edge to it, quite beautiful. And Sonny tends not to pause; he’s in high gear and filled with confidence. Art’s sound is tenderer, more conversational and nuanced. He stutters, makes a statement, thinks about it, makes another. Sonny ravishes, and Art seduces...”

“Lee’s humility worked to keep Art from feeling intimidated, and Art rewarded him by willingly surrendering the session. As a result, Art sounds relaxed and loose and daring. And then Lee went on to play so beautifully.... Lee’s not a bebopper either, and Lee and Art have similar sounds, but on this set it’s Lee’s which is the sweetest. He has a way of slurring and blurring his attack that’s extremely elegant. There’s something fine to me about Lee’s playing; each performance is like some bonafide objet. It reminds me of a perfect little ivory Buddha I have...The two men had similar ideas about behavior and about accompanying rather than trying to cut each other. And when Art chose to play clarinet on the delicious “Shadow of Your Smile”, its wistful sound blended perfectly with Lee’s sensuous fragility and complemented rather than overpowered it, which Art’s alto might have done.”

The final session with Lee Konitz was the last of the Atlas dates. Five months later, Pepper died from a cerebral hemorrhage. In an obituary written by Ted Gioia, he said:
“Has any saxophonist played with such newfound energy so late in life?... The praise he so wanted to hear, and which so long eluded him, is now a matter of record.”

Indeed, this 5-CD set serves as a worthy epitaph to Art Pepper’s career. It is a set which I shall cherish and re-visit many, many times in the coming years. One of the marks of great, classic jazz is its timelessness, and the music in this set will remain compelling and fresh in the decades ahead. I cannot recommend it too highly to Pepper fans and newcomers alike.
I forgot to include the catalog number for the Art Pepper 5-CD release I reviewed above. The catalog number is: Galaxy 5GCD-4431-2. The set can be ordered from Tower Records (see following link), which is slightly cheaper than Amazon.com, AND they do not charge state sales tax.

Link: http://www.towerrecords.com/product.asp?pfid=2343040
sdcampbell: bravo! well done! this is what audiogon and those who habitate this piece of cyberspace should emulate. -kely
Thank you, both. After I posted my review, I re-read it and wished I had made a few additional points. I was trying, however, to be somewhat succinct, since this was my first effort at writing a review. I learned a few things for next time. In retrospect, I would also have made the following comments:

1. Audio / recording quality: I gave the entire set a rating of 9 out of 10. I have in mind here a commercially produced jazz recording, not an audiophile recording. All of the recordings are somewhat closely miked, and hence don't have much "air" or acoustic ambience. However, the recording quality is exceptionally clean, with good dynamics. Others who listen to these recordings may quibble, and say they deserve an "8", rather than a "9". That may be true, depending on one's standard and the quality of one's audio system. For commercial jazz recordings, however, the sound quality doesn't get much better.

Regarding the performances: most of the 50+ selections are in the 9 to 10 range, although a few may only merit a "8". Again, one has to generalize a bit. I think the vast majority of the tunes fall into the excellent category, with a few that are sublime.

Laurie Pepper concluded her liner notes with the following remark about the recordings: "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." To which I can only say: Amen!