In the three years leading up to his death in 1982, alto saxophonist Art Pepper toured and performed relentlessly. His marathon schedule was an attempt to make up for lost years spent battling drug addiction, coping with health problems and completing prison sentences.
The tours also were a heroic effort by his wife, Laurie Pepper [pictured], to keep Art active and creative. Jazz fans have Laurie to thank for much of Art's later work as well as a series of recently released recordings. I spoke to Laurie yesterday afternoon about her record label's new two-CD release, Art Pepper: The Croydon Concert, and a three-disc set that's coming soon. More on my chat with Laurie in a minute. [Photo by Victor M. Maldonado]
Pepper remains one of the most important alto saxophonists of the post-War period. From his early years in the 1940s as a section player and soloist with Stan Kenton to his West Coast bop and cool periods in the 1950s and beyond, Pepper's playing on recordings has been consistently honest, passionate and poetic. Pepper always came to play, and his determination and burning commitment to the music rarely flagged.
Unlike many jazz artists, Pepper tended to perform best in live settings rather than in studios. To flourish, Pepper needed to be free from the restrictions of timetables, producers and multiple takes. You always hear more heat and intensity in Pepper's playing when he was captured on stage in front of an audience. As Laurie said yesterday, Art fed off the crowds and the adulation. His superb live dates include the Lighthouse and Surf Club recordings (1951-53), the Village Vanguard sessions (1977) and the Galaxy recordings (1980-81).
Art Pepper: The Croydon Concert easily joins the ranks of his other significant live recordings. The concert was recorded in May 1981 at Fairfield Halls in Croydon, England, just south of London. Opened in 1962, the concert hall's acoustics were so superb that the BBC frequently recorded there. No wonder this recording sounds so good. What's more, there isn't a bad note played. Pepper's sweet-and-sour grit and soaring ideas are equal to anything recorded live previously.
Back in 1981, Pepper's touring group was a tight, exuberant bunch: Milcho Leviev [pictured] on piano, Bob Magnusson on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. As Laurie Pepper relates in her revealing liner notes, the relationship between Pepper and Leviev was close but tense. At the heart of their friction was Leviev's almost compulsive need to play more notes than Pepper wanted behind his solos. Despite Pepper's pleas to roll back, Leviev couldn't and wouldn't. You can almost hear in Pepper's playing on The Croydon Concert a plea for Leviev to beauty up, but to no avail.
Yet the pianist's boundless energy was essential to spur and sustain Pepper during his comeback. By chasing after Pepper on the keyboard, Leviev became something of an artistic drill sergeant. But as Laurie said yesterday, "Milcho did a great job of beating Art with a stick, but there came a point when he didn't need it anymore." The listener does wish Leviev listened a little more to Art's beauty than to his own ego.
The Croydon Concert is the third in a series of unreleased Art Pepper recordings issued by Laurie Pepper's own Widow's Taste Records, and the album has enormous depth, pathos and tension. Laurie writes that she received the recording from a fan with an extensive collection of Pepper bootlegs. For a bootleg, the fidelity certainly is remarkable. The sound is so clear and crisp that the mystery source of the master must have been someone highly knowledgeable in recording live music perfectly. [Pictured: Fairfield Halls]
Both Croydon discs vividly display Pepper's metallic warmth and seemingly limitless stream of ideas. And like many of Pepper's recordings in his final years, this CD reflects the agony of his personal and artistic struggle. Pepper's tonal edge is on full display on uptempo numbers as well as the ballads. Listen, for example, to Patricia, written for Pepper's estranged daughter. You can hear him pour everything he has into the composition. Or dig what he does with Gordon Jenkins' Goodbye. There's so much sorrow there, so much Billie Holiday. On Ophelia, a mid-tempo piece dedicated to women, Pepper's passion soars as he delivers line after line without ever coasting or doubling back.
Cherokee remains a Pepper classic, and he brings a new urgency to this burner. He also plays Yours Is My Heart Alone, a now-forgotten song made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1940 shortly after he joined Tommy Dorsey. Dedicated is a fascinating tribute to John Coltrane and gives Pepper a chance to expand, with Leviev close behind. Make a List (Make a Wish) closes the second disc with an intricate, funky melody line that must have been a bear to remember let alone play accurately.
To quote from Laurie Pepper's liner notes:
"The first time I heard it was the night Art composed it, circa 1980. That night he had a gig at The Lighthouse. Milcho read it perfectly, passionately, onstage in performance. (Future pianists required some rehearsal time.) I went wild. Driving home I asked Art, 'Where does something like that come from? How did you think of it?' Art said, 'I wish I knew.' "
To pick up on that theme, yesterday I gave Laurie a call to chat briefly about Art and the new album:
JazzWax: What was Art was going through in May 1981?
Laurie Pepper: He had just gotten over a big hurdle and was back on his feet. He had already toured Japan [in 1978], which was a major milestone for him. He didn't realize he had that many fans. And by '81, our book, Straight Life, was out and received great reviews. Art was in Japan in 1977, of course, but back then he was merely an added attraction to Cal Tjader. On tour in 1981, he was confident, together and working with a tight band.
JW: What's coming next from your Widow's Taste label?
LP: Probably a three-disc set featuring unreleased early Art, middle Art and late Art. The early material will include never-before heard recordings with Kenton and Shorty Rogers. The middle period will have previously unreleased Contemporary Records tracks that [producer] Les Koenig wanted to destroy. [Pictured: Art and Shorty Rogers, circa the late 1940s]
JW: What was recorded?
LP: Coltrane-influenced madness with a rhythm section that wasn't of the best quality. But much of the music swings so hard, and Art plays tenor. It was recorded in a studio. The late-period material will be from after 1977, post-Village Vanguard, from my collection. It will include a version of Patricia on which Milcho Leviev lays back and plays beautifully.
JW: Do you miss Art?
LP: [pause] Yes and no.
JW: What do you mean?
LP: I would have to say that I'm just too old to even dream of dealing with that now. I could never do it again. But at the time, we were perfect for each other. We were a perfect match. Art made me laugh, and I appreciated everything about him. He gave me a sense of my value to him and my abilities, something I had never gotten before from anyone in my life. He made me feel that I could do anything, because I had to do it for him. [Pictured: Art and Laurie Pepper]
JW: What's the "no" part?
LP: The idea of having to look after a grownup child, 24 hours a day, would be out of the question now. Art was so sensitive. It was as if he had no skin. The way he dealt with issues was getting loaded and playing music. I think a lot of people become artists because they're so troubled, they need creativity to put their thoughts and issues in order.
JazzWax tracks: Art Pepper: The Croydon Concert can be purchased here or downloaded at iTunes. It's an album you must hear from start to finish. For me, the recording is like hearing a play or an audiobook. There's abundant drama between the lines, and the "story" unfolds and progresses. For instance, you literally hear Art's confidence grow with each track. He becomes so strong by the second disc that you get the feeling he would have played all night if they had kept the lights on.
Straight Life, Art Pepper's autobiography, as told to Laurie Pepper, is staggering. I read it three times when it first came out in 1979 and still find its confessional tone and brutal honesty shattering. The book is still in print and can be found here.