Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Art Of Pepper

Art Pepper (´25-´82) was the west coast king of the alto saxophone. Where most of his contemporaries never managed to shake off the enormous legacy left behind by the great Charlie Parker, Pepper had a tone all of his own almost right from the start. His personal life was a real mess, with heroin and related jail time being constants. For all the sordid details, read his amazing - and often almost embarrassingly honest - autobiography Straight Life, masterfully transcribed by his wife Laurie.

But no matter how troubled the altoist´s life may have been, the quality of his artistic output was always surprisingly high (no pun intended). Pepper started out playing with the bands of Benny Carter and Stan Kenton, but soon started getting gigs as a sideman and as the leader of his own group, which resulted in a terrific series of albums recorded between ´56 and ´60. Long stretches in the slammer unfortunately put an end to that fruitful period. In the autumn of his career, having finally kicked heroin and getting by on methadone, Pepper made some great albums as well, but let´s focus for now on his early classics. Without further ado: here´s the art of Pepper, in chronological order.

Let´s start off with Pepper´s great collaboration with legendary trumpeter and drug buddy Chet Baker. Released on vinyl in ´56 as Playboys, the album was later re-titled Picture Of Heath, probably because of complaints coming from Hugh Heffner´s titties empire. Shame really, as the album cover is a beauty. The Pepper composition Tynan Time shows exactly what this fine duo could do.

Chet Baker & Art Pepper - Tynan Time MP3

The Artistry Of Pepper combines two hot sessions from ´56 and ´57. The first features Pepper on what´s really a gig by tenor player Bill Perkins, while the second one sees him in a setting arranged by Shorty Rogers, who also wrote all the songs. Noteable sidemen here are Bud Shank on baritone sax and Russ Freeman on piano. The playful Powder Puff is representative of this nonet´s highly original style.

Art Pepper - Powder Puff MP3

Which brings us to what´s his best album without a doubt: Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section (´57). A fluid jazz masterpiece featuring the rhythm section of the Miles Davis group at the time. You can´t really go wrong with Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones behind the drums, but Pepper climbs to unsuspected heights here. Just listen to Red Pepper Blues and Art´s signature tune Straight Life to see what I mean.

Art Pepper - Red Pepper Blues MP3
Art Pepper - Straight Life MP3

Art Pepper + Eleven (´59) finds the altoist fronting a - you guessed it - eleven piece band, interpreting modern jazz classics by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins amongst others. As a rule I´m no fan of big bands, but here the arrangements by Marty Paich are so brilliant I can´t help myself. Pepper is on fire throughout, as you can hear on the Bird & Dizzy bop original Shaw Nuff.

Art Pepper - Shaw Nuff MP3

As a sort of follow up to Meets The Rhythm Section, Art recorded Gettin´ Together! (´60) with then Miles Davis Band members Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, adding Conte Candoli on trumpet. Another classic. Bijou The Poodle may be a rather bizarre song title, but it swings like crazy... And believe it or not, Pepper really had a dog named Bijou. Woof!

Art Pepper - Bijou The Poodle MP3

Smack Up (´60) was made months before Pepper went to jail once more on a drug-related sentence. On the whole, he did time from ´54 to ´56, ´60 to ´61, ´61 to ´64 and ´64 to ´65; the final two in San Quentin. But in the meantime he was still groovin´ high, as the powerful title track proves. Jack Sheldon´s trumpet solo is mighty fine too.

Art Pepper - Smack Up MP3

The same year saw Pepper release another fine album, which wasn´t called Intensity for nothing. Art had been listening more and more to the new sounds in jazz as pioneered by Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, so his playing showed a fresh free sound in a surprising series of standards, Gershwin´s Long Ago (And Far Away) being a perfect example.

Art Pepper - Long Ago (And Far Away) MP3

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