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Music Review: Art Pepper – The Art History Project

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One of the best autobiographies ever written is Straight Life: The Story Of Art Pepper. The book chronicles the life of the finest alto sax player of the post-Charlie Parker era. It is also one of the most honest accounts of a man devastated by heroin addiction I have ever read.

The Art History Project attempts to tell Pepper’s story through music. It is a lofty goal, but one his widow succeeds at admirably. Laurie Pepper was Art’s co-author on Straight Life, and she knows his story inside and out.

Pure Art is the title of the first disc of this three CD set, and covers the years 1951 to 1960. Although he was addicted, and spent time in jail, the playing is surprisingly consistent. Pepper’s confident and unique phrasing is highlighted best with “Begin The Beguine” and his own theme “Straight Life.” It would be many years before he played this well again.

Hard Art is the title of disc two, which focuses on the years 1960 to 1968. This period reflects Pepper’s somewhat bewildered response to the New Frontier of Jazz. The influence John Coltrane held on him during this time was extreme. In fact, Pepper even changed from his signature alto sax to Coltrane’s tenor for a while.

Sadly, Art Pepper spent most of these years locked in San Quentin. During his occasional, and relapse-abbreviated paroles, Pepper managed to record most of these tracks.

Although this material is actually quite good, the Coltrane emulation borders on idolatry. It becomes a little embarrassing, having heard his talent before heroin and jail. Still, on songs such as “So In Love,” and “That Crazy Blues,” Pepper’s sax has a lot to say, even with the Coltrane-isms.

This was obviously a very dark and lonely period for him. It is to Laurie Pepper’s credit that these sessions are even seeing the light of day. They mirror a man lost, in every sense of the word.

Consummate Art is the title of the final disc, and it is a great third act. Opening with Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” it is clear that Pepper and the band are on fire. This is glorious music, harkening back to where he began. He has returned to alto sax, and plays with a style and verve that was seemingly lost. The Coltrane influence is now just a part of Pepper’s terrain.

Out of 41 total tracks, my two favorites are contained here. “Landscape” and “Mambo Koyama” were recorded live in New York City, just two months prior to his death. Both of these songs show a man in full command of his instrument, his talent, and his band.

The Art History Project is an excellent collection. All three discs stand up to repeated listens. But I think it works on a deeper level as well. The classic Behind The Music story is an obvious cliché, but no hair-metal guy ever did the kind of prison time this man did for drugs.

Art Pepper had it all, lost it all, and actually got it all back and more in the end. The Art History Project is the musical reflection of a man’s life lived on the edge

It is also one hell of a listen.

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