Today Laurie Pepper, Art Pepper's widow, has released a four-CD set of Pepper performing in London at Ronnie's Scott's on June 27 and 28, 1980, two years before the alto saxophonist's death. It may well be the finest recording of late Pepper released on Laurie Pepper's Widow's Taste label.
There are two reasons for this: First, despite Pepper's history of frayed nerves on stage, he was remarkably at ease in front of this British audience, which is reflected in the softness of his tone and his patient delivery. Pepper dreaded playing to half-empty houses. He often had nightmares of showing up to a gig with three people half asleep at tables. On these two nights in June, Ronnie Scott's was packed, much to Pepper's delight.
Second, the quality of the live recording is astonishingly vivid. Professionally recorded by London's Mole Jazz Records in cooperation with Ronnie Scott's, the original analog tapes were transferred at 192 kHtz, 24 bit and remastered by Wayne Peet at Newzone Studio in Los Angeles. In plain speak, it sounds like Pepper is in the room with you.
As Laurie told me yesterday:
"This is the only professionally recorded material I've released so far. It cost me a lot more to transfer and edit at 192kHz, 24 bit, but I wanted to tell the audiophiles, truthfully, that such was the case. I have to say, that Wayne [pictured] did some remarkable work, because the piano apparently was recorded almost entirely in the right channel, while everybody else was over in the left.
"Working with two track, he moved it beautifully to the middle and brought the piano up as best he could. He also brought up the voice audio [during Pepper's stage banter] without distortion or hiss and that in spite of the room noise.
"This box has cost me five times more than any other set I've released. Ordinarily I wouldn't have done it, but fans have been persistent, especially Art's fans in Britain.
"Now I hope they justify me by buying it. I do agree with them that it's a classic—musically and emotionally. And it does sound so good."
The Fisherman here is the late Chris Fisherman, who is referred to by Laurie in her liner notes as Pepper's best friend. Fisherman was a businessman, a lawbreaker and something of a conman. That last persona worked in Pepper's favor. After being arrested following a traffic stop that yielded a suspect straw, Pepper was jailed and released with a court date. But his lawyer was out of town.
So Fisherman filled in by dressing the part and convincing an assistant district attorney in her office that the case was flimsy and should be thrown out. Long story short, Pepper was released.
This London appearance came in the middle of his recordings for the Atlas label, which paired him on the West Coast with a series of marqee musicians, including Jack Sheldon, Sonny Stitt and Pete Jolly. Pepper's rhythm section at the time consisted of Milcho Leviev (p), Tony Dumas (b) and Carl Burnett (d), and they work together superbly throughout.
During the sets at Ronnie Scott's, Pepper's blowing was warm and inviting. The harsh, fearful phrasing we hear on other live recordings of the period is absent, replaced by long, interlocking lines. Sensing audience kinship, Pepper eases into songs, giving them a lilting quality, and his giving mood is reflected in his stage remarks. The audience response is tremendous.
We also hear Pepper on clarinet here on Anthropology and In a Mellow Tone. Pepper rarely played clarinet late in his career, mostly due to his discomfort with the difficult instrument.
Of particular note on this set are the gospel-funk Red Car; Gordon Jenkins' Goodbye, which is delivered almost like Parker's Mood; and Blues for the Fisherman, a mid-tempo tribute to Pepper's close friend and "attorney."
JazzWax tracks: Art Pepper: Blues for the Fisherman (Widow's Taste) is a four-CD box set that can be found here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Part 1 of a three-part series of mini YouTube interview clips between Laurie Pepper and pianist Milcho Leviev...