This five-CD box of studio material was originally released in Japan on the tiny Atlas label. Until now it has never been available in the United States. Impeccably recorded between 1979 and 1982, the year Art Pepper's horn was silenced -- at least as a mortal -- these sides were the brainchild of Yasuyuki Ishihara. His vision was for Pepper to lead a number of bands comprised of his old cohorts on the West Coast jazz scene for a West Coast "super session" series that would sell in Japan like hotcakes. There were only two problems: First, Pepper was under exclusive contract to Galaxy worldwide and could not appear as a leader on any other label. The second problem related to Pepper himself; he wanted to give Ishihara what he wanted but wasn't necessarily interested in returning to old ground, so he wanted a say in who was in these bands -- since a new one had to be selected for every session. The solutions were fairly simple: Pepper would always appear as a sideman even though he was really the session leader, and he, his wife and manager Laurie Pepper (who should win a Grammy Award for her liner notes here), and Ishihara would come to consensus on the bands. Laurie Pepper points out that when Art was playing as a sideman, he could relax, just play, and have fun; technically, since he wasn't the leader here, he did just that. Her point is borne out in the recordings: Pepper is blowing his ass off in his usual lilting and lyrical style, full of knotty runs up the registers of the horn, light and easy but no less driven. His playing here is free of tension, yet contains without question the very passion that made him such a melodic improviser and individual stylist -- the only member of his generation that didn't cop the style of Charlie Parker
And what bands they are. "All-Star" doesn't even begin to get at it when the lineup on one date is Art Pepper on alto, Bill Watrous on trombone, Russ Freeman on piano, Bob Magnuson on bass, and Carl Burnett on drums, and then on another the group consists of Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Milcho Leviev on piano, Tony Dumas
on bass, and Burnett again. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. As these sessions stretched on over time, other giants such as drummer Shelly Manne (who had played with Pepper in the early days of the West Coast scene -- as had Sheldon and Freeman), Sonny Stitt, Lee Konitz, and Pete Jolly hopped on board. Noted sidemen such as Monte Budwig
, Bob Cooper, John Heard
, Lou Levy
, Roy McCurdy
, Bob Magnuson, John Dentz
, Mike Lang, and Chuck Domanico
also joined the various sessions.
The first disc has all of session one -- with Watrous, Freeman, Burnett, and Magnuson -- and a third of the session with Sheldon. The gig starts easily enough with "Just Friends," which is an easy communication builder, especially between Pepper and Freeman; there's the gentleness set by Burnett's drummed intro and the line played by Pepper, with Watrous playing a gorgeous trombone harmony, filling in the counterpoint. Freeman's comping is full of small surprises, like the ninths tossed in at the end of a chord sequence just to make the rhythm section feel more angular, while keeping the melodic framework of tune intact. Pepper's solo is brilliant; his stop-and-start stuttered blues lines dig deep into his considerable world of feeling. It's a tease, though: after three choruses Freeman takes over. He sounds as if he was surprised at his own solo, as if he didn't know he could pack that much into only two choruses. In a sense the session starts in earnest with "Begin the Beguine." Freeman's contrapuntal harmony against the melody is striking and quick; Pepper and Watrous move in to trade fours and harmonies as the intervals change like lightning. However, Watrous' trombone solo really makes the tune happen. It's so open and full -- as if the entire world of music was in that slide of his, with his scattershot melodies and arpeggios. This blows the early solos of Curtis Fuller
and J.J. Johnson
out of the water when it comes to intensity, and engages more inside the tune. There are two more sprightly numbers: Written by Watrous and with its quick tempo and gnarly melody, "For Art's Sake" is a tune to blow on; the gently swinging "Funny Blues" feels like it came straight from the '50s. But "Angel Eyes" shows Pepper doing what he does best: play ballads. His blues soloing is flawless, and the way he packs notes into the phrase never sounds rushed or extraneous. His solo opens the tune with its long melody, and is then followed wonderfully in the middle and lower registers by Freeman; the two are so perfectly matched you can't believe that haven't always played together.
Session two features the incomparable ballad stylings of trumpeter Jack Sheldon, designated as the leader for this outing. Its highlights are "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," moved up-tempo for this session with Pepper in full blues mode, and Sheldon's mournful opening of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," with Leviev opening the gently swinging melody for Pepper to zoom in on. But the true prize in the session, and rightfully Laurie's favorite piece, is "Historia de un Amor." Pepper states a minor-key Spanish line, and plays one of his blues stutters -- starting, starting again, and finally filling up the space before giving way to Sheldon's sadder-than-sad trumpet. His melody captures within it all of the bleeding, broken hearts that still burn with the fire of love in their fragile brokenness. His lyrical statement and Pepper's response in the form of a wrenching solo are almost unbearably beautiful. Leviev knows how to accent the deep feeling in the tune with clustered minors and graceful trills. Sheldon's solo moves to the middle register of the horn and literally cries with the same intensity of feeling that a classical tenor does in his aria. There is also a fine performance of Monk
's "I Surrender, Dear" that would be stellar if it weren't for an overindulgent piano solo by Leviev; but there is also a moving, shimmering read of Pepper's "theme song," "Everything Happens to Me."
Session three -- a quartet date with Roy McCurdy, Pete Jolly, and Bob Magnusson
-- consists of only two tracks, notable for Pepper's ability, along with Jolly, to indulge the full range of his particular kind of melodic invention. For Pepper, harmony was never an extension of melody; it was the very foundation principle that all intricate melodic forms were built upon (and rightfully so, but many jazz musicians forget this). His solos look for the angular way to approach melodic improvisation -- his hearing of chords was very sophisticated and he could trace their root in the blink of an eye and be off and running based on them. Both selections in this session -- "Out of Nowhere" and an alternate take of "Y.I. Blues" -- showcase the close connection of Jolly and Pepper. But session four is where things begin to jump, when Sonny Stitt joins the band as "leader." Right away, things steam with the bebop classic "Scrapple From the Apple," and it feels like East Coast versus West Coast in a battle of ego, dexterity, intervallic fire and flair, and -- ultimately -- harmonic invention. The cut is played at a furious tempo, at least as fast as the original by Bird and Diz
. The melody slips by in a blink and both players trade fours in between. You can definitely tell who is who: Pepper's warmer tone is readily apparent and Stitt still has that Bird-like sound. Stitt takes an all-fire, all-the-time kind of solo as Pepper plays, moves in another direction, plays some more, and then ties all the lines together with thought and emotion, not just power. The versions of "How High the Moon" and the two takes of "Groovin' High" are also mind-benders in how tough these guys are on each other, both having a gladiator's ball. The big surprise, however, is Lou Levy, who smokes these tunes like he was eating them for breakfast. He provides a wall of harmony so fluid and dense that both saxophonists have to come out shooting, tearing the blues apart from inside in order to get to the end of the line.
The latter part of this session features Freeman on piano and John Heard on bass. Its most notable and interesting moments are "Lester Leaps In," with Pepper playing tenor. It's over 11 minutes long, and both players get to stretch the boundaries of the tune as Freeman maintains the changes and moves its harmonics around to take into consideration the outrageous chances these guys are taking with a classic. Stitt figures it's his move because Pepper's playing tenor, but the fact of the matter is that Pepper's comfort with the horn is astonishing. He plays it as if it were an alto -- fluid, quick as a pickpocket, and slippery as grease. This one must have been exhausting to play, because it's an ass-kicker to listen to. The versions of "My Funny Valentine" and "Imagination," both West Coast signature tunes, are handled with elegance and grace, although Stitt's playing sounds stilted a bit on "Imagination."
The next two sessions feature the stellar talents of Shelly Manne (session five), and Lee Konitz (session six). There are no highlights from either of these dates, done in 1981 and 1982, respectively. The selections of tunes should speak for themselves. On the session with Manne as leader, "Just Friends," "These Foolish Things," "Limehouse Blues," and "Lover Come Back to Me" reignite the fire that existed between Pepper and Manne in the Stan Kenton
band, later in Pepper's first quartets, and on Manne's early dates as a leader. With Watrous, Jolly, and tenor sax man Bob Cooper on board, this feels like West Coast classicism, although done in the modern vernacular. Pepper's tone seems to change here, becoming silkier and more muted and reserved -- but no less inventive. Cooper is a fine tenor player, but lyrically he is no match for Pepper -- although Watrous is. The three trade out harmonies on augmented chords through most of the tunes, but the Pepper and Watrous exchanges and fills are the most interesting.
On the meeting between Konitz and Pepper, much could be written. There is a mutual respect here that is so high -- Art Pepper handed the session over to Konitz. Konitz picked the tunes and Pepper picked the rhythm section, featuring Mike Lang on piano (who is a studio musician par excellence), drummer John Dentz, and bassist Bob Magnuson (who is as solid a bass player as there is). Magnuson is inventive and flawless in his sense of time (often more accurate than the best drummers). And he knows how to solo; every time he does he changes elements in the music's framework. Pepper is the edgier of the two saxophonists; freed of the responsibility for the session, he concentrates on relaxing, playing his level best, and cornering each solo as if it were his last (he died five months later so they almost were). On tunes such as "High Jingo," "The Shadow of Your Smile," "S' Wonderful," "Cherokee," "Minor Blues in F," and "Whims of Chambers," Konitz is full of warm and sweet earth tones. He and Pepper play "together"; there is no ego, no nervousness -- just two horn players finding each other on the fly harmonically and melodically. When they stutter and overlap each other's phrases on "Whims of Chambers" near the end, you would swear telepathy is something that happens every day in the jazz world.
In all, these five CDs occupy a very special place in Art Pepper's discography, let alone his life. They offer a portrait of him as he never was on the dates he led: relaxed, easy, and full of a kind of fluid motion that fills you when you aren't responsible for everything. Somehow he tricked himself into believing that he wasn't the leader on these dates and thus played as he hadn't ever before -- even on the old songs, where he didn't even quote himself. Everything was new for these sessions in Pepper's mind, no matter what the producer wanted. Finally, listeners in the States get to hear these sessions in a package that is well-documented almost to a fault, with wonderfully remastered sound in a gorgeous package. Bravo to Laurie Pepper and to Fantasy for making this material available.