In May 1981, Art Pepper and his wife Laurie along with pianist Milcho Leviev, bassist Bob Magnusson and drummer Carl Burnett left for Europe. For the entire month, the alto saxophonist and his trio were on the road playing 18 concerts across the continent. In recent years, Laurie has released several recordings of Art in action on her Widow's Taste label, including Art Pepper: The Croydon Concert, a U.K. event that was recorded during the May 1981 tour (see review here).
Now Laurie has released a fifth volume of Pepper's previously unissued work, and it's a mind-blowing powerhouse example of Pepper in superb form. The album, Stuttgart May 25, 1981 is a double CD set that features Pepper in Germany in an almost trance state, roaring out stellar versions of For Freddie, Straight Life, Yours Is My Heart Alone, Over the Rainbow and others. The recording's sound is vivid and clear to the ear, and the heat the group throws off is coherent and spring-loaded. To me, Stuttgart is Pepper's finest live work from this period and Laurie's best CD set to date.
Yesterday, I called Laurie to chat about Art Pepper and the new album:
JazzWax: How far into the tour was the concert held in Stuttgart, Germany?
Laurie Pepper: This stop was right near the end. The tour of Europe lasted from May 8th to the 29th and was very intense. We were in a different city nearly every day or traveling to one, mostly by bus. Art and the group played a two-hour concert at each stop with one intermission. We only had a day or two of real downtime. It was very hard physically on Art given his health problems.
JW: What were Art’s health problems?
LP: He had this really monstrous hiatal hernia. His belly would bulge out, so he had to wear a corset when he played to keep everything in.
JW: Did he get the hernia on the road?
LP: It happened to him while he was attempting a comeback with Buddy Rich in the late 1960s.
JW: What was the cause?
LP: We figured the hernia had to have been caused by one or more factors. We suspected it was a result of his girlfriend at the time constantly sucker punching him in the stomach.
JW: Why did she do that?
LP: Art met her when he came out of prison for the last time in the mid-1960s. They both drank enormous amounts. She would never tell him she was angry with him. She’d just go over to him and then submarine him in the gut. Then she’d tell him why.
JW: What were some of the reasons?
LP: Accusations of infidelity, which was ridiculous, since Art was a pathologically faithful mate. She was just a paranoid woman, and they were drunk all of the time. He was only with her for a few years.
JW: Was there another possible reason for his stomach problems?
LP: We weren’t sure whether it was all the hitting and drinking or if it was an ailment he and I discovered while watching an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. on TV.
JW: What was the ailment?
LP: Thalassemia, which is similar to sickle cell anemia and tends to affect people of Italian origin. Art had the minor version, which meant he could survive. But it also meant his spleen was constantly in danger of rupturing, and drinking certainly didn’t help.
JW: Was there anything else?
LP: He also had the usual kinds of digestive problems. And he was on methadone maintenance.
JW: Did he ever seek treatment for the hernia?
LP: No, he never sought treatment for anything. He never went to the doctor in his early life. He didn’t want to think about anything that might be wrong with him, health-wise.
JW: How did he manage to play as hard and as beautifully as he did in May 1981 on so little rest—and for such long stretches in performance at each stop of the tour?
LP: For Art, there was nothing like being up on that stage. He lived for it. He was spectacular on tour and he always delivered, no matter what.
JW: Where did the Stuttgart tapes come from?
LP: A guy from Europe got in touch with me. Fans from all over the world send me recordings of Art's gigs. Apparently, Europe during this period was rife with people recording concerts and club performances. In some cases, the very guys who were miking the events or engineering recorded him without his knowledge. Those recordings are usually superb. My contact also sent me a long list of illegitimate Art Pepper recordings, sort of discography from the dark side.
JW: The Stuttgart concert sounds remarkably excellent.
LP: A friend listened to it on headphones and believes that a few different sources may have been used. But the average ear can't really hear the divisions. We can thank Wayne Peet [of Newzone Studios in Los Angeles] for the remastering. Wayne is also a musician and has incredible ears. He does beautiful work.
JW: You were on tour with the band. Do you remember the Stuttgart concert?
LP: No. Nobody remembers it in any detail. I spoke to Carl Burnett recently and he doesn’t remember it either. You have to remember, this was one stop out of 18 from 29 years ago. Everything blends together. For us, it was just another day at the office, another stop.
JW: Where was Art’s head during this tour?
LP: Focused. I loved being on the road with Art. He wasn’t doing anything else but playing. He didn’t have the time or the energy to be bad. Each concert was so important for him.
JW: What’s coming next?
LP: I'm working on a couple of projects. The next release likely will be a concert from the Konigsberg Festival in Norway recorded on June 30, 1980. It was a special date. We had just flown from London, and with the summer light, it never really got dark. When we arrived in Norway from England, we had a cup of coffee and Art went right on stage and played magically. What they call the "midnight sun" was amazing.
JW: And after the Norway project?
LP: Then I will likely issue a very large volume of material recorded at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, also from June 1980. There are three or four nights' worth of material. This will probably be available only as a download given the large volume of recordings. Art loved Ronnie Scott’s, and you can hear that in his playing there.
JazzWax clip: Here's For Freddie, which will give you a taste of the album's energy and power...