Art Pepper is one of only a handful of jazz artists whose life story is perhaps as well known as his recordings. Thanks largely to the publication of Straight Life in 1979, a searing autobiography written by Pepper with his literary wife Laurie, Pepper's music has much greater meaning and dimension today now that the back-story is known. One of the earliest no-holds-barred, tell-all jazz books, Straight Life detailed Pepper's passion for jazz, his plunge down the rabbit hole of addiction, and his struggles to resurrect himself after years squandered on narcotics and in jail.
When Straight Life came out, I had known little of Pepper's life story. But after reading the book in one sitting, I understood immediately what Pepper was trying to say with his music and where all that energy, pain and beauty came from. I immediately bought Surf Ride, The Early Show, The Late Show, The Return of Art Pepper, Picture of Heath and Modern Art. Along with a friend who read Pepper's book at the same time, we listened to hours of the saxophonist's recordings. But I still felt I lacked a complete understanding of Pepper's thinking. So in the summer of 1982, prior to a trip west to visit a college friend just south of Los Angeles, I recorded a bunch of Pepper on cassettes and packed a Walkman. After spending days listening to Pepper on the beaches of Southern California, I came to realize that there's a lot of Pacific Coast sunlight and rolling surf in everything he plays.
Which is why comparisons to Charlie Parker always seem forced. Both Pepper and Parker played from honesty and pain. But Pepper had a more sun-splashed sound to his attack in the 1950s. Like Parker, Pepper happily ran red lights with his risk-taking improvisation. But he always seemed to be cruising through the intersections rather than tearing by. In addition, Pepper's West Coast roots made him keenly aware of space. His sound relied heavily on a hot-sand wail rather than a deep blues tradition.
In the years since Pepper's death in 1982, his wife Laurie has been issuing previously unreleased material on her Widow's Taste label. Her fourth and most recent effort is a three-CD compilation called Art Pepper: The Art History Project. As Laurie told me yesterday, this set's purpose is more about placing one Pepper track up against another chronologically to contrast and appreciate Pepper's development than reaching into the rarity vaults. Nevertheless, a third of the set contains never-before issued tracks, including unknown recordings made just after Pepper's release from San Quentin State Prison in 1964.
The three-CD set smartly covers Pepper's life in three phases—early, middle and late. The result is a welcome reminder of how special Pepper was and how provocative his playing became in the later years. The unreleased material includes six tracks on Disc 2 (tracks 1-6), and three tracks on Disc 3 (tracks 2, 3, 6 and 7). What's more, there are limited release tracks here that have appeared in the past only on Danish and Japanese releases (on Disc 3, tracks 1, 2, 4 and 5).
Pepper was a product of the big bands. He did two tours of duty with Stan Kenton's orchestra in 1943 and again starting in 1947. As a result, Pepper had impeccable time and swing, and thick chops developed while trying to be heard in a Mack truck band. When Pepper left Kenton at the tail end of 1951, he became immersed in the West Coast bop scene, leading and playing with groups that included Shorty Rogers, Sonny Clark, Shelly Manne, Hampton Hawes, Harry Babasin, Joe Mondragon and many others. A gifted sight reader and strong jazz soloist, Pepper added a special ingredient to a sax section and helped pioneer a new West Coast alto saxophone sound that was at once soulfully restless and laid back. [Photo of Pepper with Stan Kenton's orchestra in 1950 by Bob Willoughby]
Disc #1 (Pure Art: 1951-1960) features Pepper with Stan Kenton and assorted small group combos. Pepper's playing is bouncy and edgy—like an amusement park ride that has snapped free of its operator's controls. Pepper swings in and out, darting here and there but always delivering a warm, electrified sound. Pepper's attacks are searing and thrusting, especially on Art's Oregano and Diane.
Disc #2 (Hard Art: 1960-1968) displays the influence of free jazz on Pepper. The first six tracks were recorded in May 1964, Pepper's first recordings following his prison release. Dig the 11-minute So In Love featuring free jazz breaks with John Coltrane-like arpeggio showers. But this motif isn't a lift. Pepper breaks in places, allowing his former lyricism to emerge. On That Crazy Blues, there are shades of Ornette Coleman as Pepper spins and spins while developing ideas.
The disc ends with Phil Wilson's arrangement of Chelsea Bridge, from Buddy Rich's Mercy, Mercy album recorded live in 1968 at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. I might have chosen Alfie from the same album instead, on which Pepper has a searing solo. But the more I listened to Chelsea Bridge, the more I understand where Laurie was coming from when she chose it, especially given Pepper's Coltrane touches. What's remarkable on this track not only is Pepper's all-out playing but that he had a ruptured spleen at the time. Said Buddy Rich trombonist Rick Stepton in the Mercy, Mercy CD liner notes:
"Art had been playing tenor with a Latin band in the barrio section of Los Angeles and didn't own an alto when he got the call to join the band. Don Menza offered to lend him his horn until he could get one of his own, and that's Don's alto Art was playing at Caesar's."
Disc #3 (Consummate Art: 1972-1982). By the early 1970s, Pepper was bit more anchored to his own sound, though he continued to integrate Coltrane's purposeful runs into his solos. Perhaps the most interesting track on this disc is Angel Wings. According to Laurie's liner notes, a Japanese label in 1980 asked Pepper to record some West Coast Jazz for export. So Pepper got together with trumpeter Jack Sheldon, pianist Russ Freeman and other musicians and revisited his 1950s roots. What's interesting is how he blends free jazz touches into his neo-West Coast scene.
A three-disc compilation that calls itself The Art History Project almost taunts you to choose the period you like best. For me, Disc #1 remains most memorable and fun to hear. Pepper in the 1950s had an energy, joy and innocence that transcended the times. He was ahead of the pack and breaking new ground without looking to see who might be on his creative tail. Pepper's playing changed after his devastating years in prison, and not always for the better.
By the time of his prison release in 1964, Pepper had emerged in a creative moonscape. The music he had known had changed, replaced by an art form that was less cohesive. After losing four critical years of artistic development, Pepper seemed hell-bent trying to catch up to the music of Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman and demonstrating that he, too, could play it. The results often feel detached, uncertain and lost. Which makes these tracks fascinating if you know the back-story. These are the blues, but not the blues of hard luck, poverty or racism. They're the kind you play when you've come to realize finally how foolish you've been and how much time you've wasted succumbing to personal weakness.
JazzWax tracks: Art Pepper: The Art History Project is available as a download from iTunes as three stand-alone albums. Or you can buy the set from CDBaby here. The remastering by Wayne Peet is superb. If you're a fan of Pepper in the 1950s, you should know that two-thirds of the set is devoted to post-prison Pepper, which is a different trip. And even if you already own some of the set's tracks on Individual albums, it's a delight to have Laurie Pepper's choices here. Just knowing that she finds these tracks meaningful and in this order make them special.
JazzWax clip: Shortly after Pepper's release from San Quentin, he appeared on Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual TV show in San Francisco in May 1964. The two tracks here are D Section and Groupin'. The band is Pepper on alto sax, Frank Strazzeri on piano, Hersh Hamel on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums...