Art Pepper: "The Art History Project (Unreleased Art, Vol IV)" is the latest release from Laurie Pepper's Widow's Taste label. Laurie has been providing us with a lot of rare and formerly unavailable recordings by Art over the last few years, and this comprehensive 3CD box is no different.
This is a fascinating set that features Art, from a historical perspective, in three different settings: His early days, 1951-60, when he first established his reputation as a formidable alto saxophonist on the bop jazz scene; the middle years, 1960-68, when he emerged from a long prison sentence with new ideas he hoped to put into action on the free jazz scene only to be continually mired by his own propensity towards self-destruction; and the final years, 1972-82, when Art, despite all odds, transformed his music with renewed energy and consolidation of all his concepts to create a vast body of timeless music.
Disc One, "Pure Art", is Art Pepper in the early years, even at a young age definitely at the top of his game. Art performs what have now become jazz standards, but in the 1950's these songs were contemporary, some taken from Hollywood musicals and such. For me, however, it is more interesting to hear Art's original compositions, in particular the ballad in dedication to his daughter, 'Patricia'. I've heard very long and moving renditions of this song from Art's peak in the late 70's, but in the 50's the track times were, of necessity, shorter. (remember, the record companies were still looking for jazz singles in the 3 minute range) Art was able to make such a strong impression in a short song and Patricia is one heartfelt tribute, that's for certain. And then there's 'Straight Life', this version recorded in 1954 when Charlie Parker was still quite active. Parker's giant shadow was cast over the entire jazz community and there were saxophonists who gave up playing alto in those days because grappling with Bird was too much. The amazing thing about Art Pepper is, in my opinion, he'd already mastered a lot of Parker's fast runs, and 'Straight Life' certainly showcases that aspect, but even at this early point, Art is always ready to put his heart on the line and play (overtly) emotionally. Where Bird would wow an audience with his rare facility, I never heard in his work the sort of expressionist dynamics that Art portrayed. This places Art, I feel, more conclusively in the "post-bop" era, along with such altoists as Jackie McLean, or Eric Dolphy. If Art had been able to remain active throughout the 1960's, instead of behind bars or in rehab facilities, I believe he would have been just as influential as those two.
The first disc I actually listened to was "Hard Art"(CD 2). Reason for this is that there have never been any recordings available, to my knowledge, from the period where Art was first doing a prison sentence and then a long stint in rehab at the Synanon Center where he later met his wife, Laurie Pepper. There had been documentation of Art's interest in John Coltrane's music, and how it had influenced him in some of the interviews I'd read, but no recordings had ever surfaced. Purportedly, and this has been substantiated by Laurie, Art even took up the tenor saxophone for a time in a sort of emulation of Coltrane. When Art got out of jail in 1964, Lester Koenig, of Contemporary Records, allowed Art to use the Contemporary recording studios to rehearse a new quartet and that rehearsal was recorded. Mr. Koenig, in his infinite wisdom, wished the tapes to be erased but somebody at the record label with more sense did not follow his wishes and saved these valuable documents, so the fact that this music survives today is remarkable!
And this set is a revelation. Being very familiar with Art's renaissance period, I can hear right away that he is not using all of the same dynamics that he exhibited in his post-1972 work. No, here he's like a wildcat released from a zoo, running and running just to feel the freedom! His playing has more ragged edges, certainly on purpose, since Art could do anything he wanted to on the saxophone, and definitely could have performed well within his comfort zone if he so chose, but instead he roars out of the gate challenging himself to grapple with the jazz giants of 1964. Jazz music, in the mid-60's, was not the same world as that of Parker, Dizzy and Monk. Jazz had become increasingly abstract and expressively able to address profound personal and sociopolitical issues. But Laurie is right-on when she says that Art's music, even when he's going "out", always "swings"! Art could never release completely from his own innate sense of rhythmic content. He'd come up in the bebop clubs onstage battling with some of the greatest players in the era of Charlie Parker's immense domination and Art could never quite get those experiences out of his blood. But this is about as close as you'll get to a free-jazz Art Pepper and it's a beautiful thing.
"Consummate Art" (Disc 3) starts out as such a strong validation for those prison and drug years and the music Art had been distilling inside waiting to unleash. The first track, 'Caravan', is simply stunning and may be even more free-jazz than a lot of the music on the "Hard Art" set. By this time, Art is able to move back and forth between structure and freedom in his solos to a place where every inflection, every slur, every racing flurry, they are all in servitude to the expressiveness of the piece. 'Caravan' was never meant to be played like this, but Art and the pianist, Milcho Leviev, use the number as a showcase piece to state with utmost certainty that they've encompassed all aspects of jazz history and despite how revelatory their solos are the piece still contains both the dance and exotic aspects portrayed in it by Duke Ellington version. If that's not enough for you, then comes the follow-up of Art's ballad, 'Lost Life'. Here the slow exploration of Art's own life-experience brings chills as he explains it all, lays it all out, plaintive and heartbreaking, in a language unencumbered by words. This album again reminds those of us who know, and informs those who don't yet know, that Art Pepper was one of the greatest musical expressionists EVER recorded!
Art, interviewed by Downbeat in 1951, stated his ambition to be "the best jazzman in America". What strikes me about this 3 CD set is that the argument for Art having achieved his goal is laid out so conclusively. But then again you'd be preaching to the converted here since I'm one of Art's biggest fans!
Phillip B. Klingler, aka PBK
This amazing new release can be acquired through the Widow's Taste label, here:
Received the following exciting news from Laurie Pepper:
Hello dear fans.
Release of the new Art Pepper album is scheduled for late April, 2008.
It features: Art Pepper, Milcho Leviev (playing like an angel; the best he ever played), Bob Magnusson and his gorgeous bass, and Carl Burnett.
Fromat Fairfield Hall (great acoustics), Croydon, England, on May 14, 1981, it was recorded via the sound system at the hall and collected by a guy who collects these things and who has graciously opened his entire Art Pepper collection to me. The quality is excellent.
The recording features a 22 minute "Make a List, Make a Wish," which can be heard on my website at http://straightlife.info. It will be a TWO DISC SET. There will be a 12 page booklet with photos and recollections of this tour, descriptions of band members, histories of the tunes.
It's a wonderful collection of bebop, blues, and ballads.
Looking forward to lavishing all this beauty upon you! L.
Current mood:hopefulA Prayer For Art:
Your brilliance and creativity have made this world a more beautiful place for all of us. The tragedies of your life, the burdens you shouldered, those things we cannot know, were banished when you played your music. Your music takes flight within our souls when we listen. The profound manifests through your life's work. We give thanks and we are lucky to have many recordings of your music to engage ourselves in a kind of conversation with you. We give thanks to Laurie Pepper and her many efforts, she is an inspiration and carries the torch on your behalf. We are thankful for all of the enlightened people who have come to know your music and those who have not yet discovered but, one day, will understand your gift. Most of all, we are thankful for your life, Art Pepper, and the amazing music you created that continues to enhance our lives.
HAPPY 82nd BIRTHDAY ART PEPPER!
From Phillip B. Klingler, aka PBK