If Gerry Mulligan's mannered, contrapuntal baritone saxophone style can be likened to a badminton player, then Pepper Adams' approach can be compared to a street brawler. Born in Michigan, Adams moved as a child with his family to upstate New York and then to Detroit, where at age 16 he took up the baritone sax. His relocation back to New York in the mid-1950s put him in play on the recording scene, particularly with hard bop players.
Adams had the remarkable ability to blow low with enormous power and swing, becoming a hefty addition to big band reed sections. He also was an equally dominant voice in small groups, adding ferocious excitement and stamina. As a songwriter, Adams was lyrical and prolific, composing 43 pieces.
We know this because jazz historian and album producer Gary Carner [pictured] has long been diligently obsessed with the Adams legacy. While a graduate English student at the City College of New York in 1984, Carner befriended Adams and spent months interviewing him for a paper and biography. Then Adams grew ill with cancer in 1985. Shortly before Adams died in September 1986, Carner ran into pianist Tommy Flanagan, who was Adams' closest friend.
As Carner relates:
"Flanagan told me that Adams was very frail, lapsing in and out of a coma. But once, when he came to, Pepper tried feebly to nudge with his fingers [my manuscript] in Tommy's direction, as if to draw attention to it and give it weight. Adams wanted this material to survive him after his death, and Flanagan made sure that I was aware of it."
Following Adams' death, Carner focused on preserving Adams' work. Twenty-six years later, Carner has collated Adams' papers, lead sheets, photographs and the remains of his estate, establishing an extensive tribute website (go here) along the way. He also painstakingly has assembled Adams' discography. In the process, Carner has compiled the music to all of Adams' compositions.
In 2006, Carner decided to produce an album of musicians playing Adams' recordings. But what began as a notion to record just one CD blossomed into a much more ambitious project that would wind up capturing all of Adams' works and then some. Carner organized recording dates in Chicago, Brooklyn and Tallahassee, Fla.—hiring session leaders and arrangers, the musicians, the studios and the engineers.
Thank goodness for obsessed micromanagers. Joy Road: The Complete Works of Pepper Adams (Motema) is now available, and the five-CD set is a breathtaking and heartfelt interpretive salute to one of jazz's finest and least-known baritone saxophonists and composers.
The first album—The Jeremy Kahn Quartet, with Gary Smulyan [pictured] on baritone sax, Kahn on piano, Rob Amster on bass and George Fludas on drums.
The second album—The Jeremy Kahn Trio (see above).
The third album—The Kevin Bales Quartet, with Bales on piano, Barry Greene on guitar, Rodney Jordan on bass and Leon Anderson on drums.
The fourth album—The Frank Basile Sextet, with Basile on baritone sax, Joe Magnarelli on trumpet, John Mosca on trombone, Adam Birnbaum on piano, Dennis Irwin on bass and Tim Horner on drums.
The fifth album—Alexis Cole sings the music of Adams. Poet/lyricist Barry Wallenstein wrote words to a range of Adams' originals with the help of pianist Adam Birnbaum and vocalist Cole. The musicians backing Cole are Pat LaBarbera and Eric Alexander on tenor saxes, Jeremy Kahn on piano, Dennis Carroll on bass and George Fludas on drums.
So how are the tracks without a baritone saxophone in the lineup? Gorgeous. The interpretations seize on Adams' impatience and drive, creating the sensation that he's present but sitting-out after his solo. What's more, showcasing a baritone sax throughout might have been a bit much, resulting in a wax museum replication. And because the baritone sax is absent on two of the instrumental albums, you actually get to hear the intricacy, grace and strength of Adams' writing.
On each of the tracks, there's Adams' bebop burn and sighing tension that were his compositional fingerprints. Adams was a player of enormous depth and intensity. Through Carner, we also learn he was a kind and gentle soul—despite the tiger-like attack of his blowing.
JazzWax tracks: You have a few choices with Joy Road: The Complete Works of Pepper Adams. Motema wisely offers all five CDs together as a download, several of the individual albums separately, and a single album sampler. For the complete set, go here. You can buy Vols. 1, 2 and 4 separately here, here and here. I Carry Your Heart: Alexis Cole Sings Pepper Adams (Vol. 5) can be found here. For the Joy Road sampler, featuring selections from all five albums, go here.
JazzWax note: Groups and artists who participated in the Joy Road Pepper Adams Project will be touring. For more information, go here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Pepper Adams in London in 1981 playing Bossa Nouveau...