The story of Art Pepper’s remarkable emergence from the abyss of drug addiction and incarceration is one of the most uplifting stories of the jazz greats, amongst stories that have more often ended tragically. His comeback was not only complete, but had even exceeded his earlier peak.
For the last five years of his life, Pepper was arguably the finest alto saxophonist in all of jazz. It’s not a claim to be made lightly, but listening to Pepper’s later performances I can’t think of anyone playing that instrument better than he was at that time.
Pepper’s widow Laurie is working on a film chronicling Pepper’s personal triumph and it promises to be a great story. Before the movie comes out though, the story of that triumph is already vividly on display in both the live and studio recordings of Pepper’s post-addiction performances.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of recordings left behind that document this, including many bootlegs that have surfaced in recent years. Through the efforts of Mrs. Pepper and others, these have become available in the form of well-mastered official releases.
Laurie has been culling together previously unavailable recordings of Art’s live performances into a series of official releases under her own “Widow’s Taste” label. Last year, I covered Vol. II of this series, which was a Voice Of America recording of Art’s very last public performance on May 30, 1982.
Around the time that Volumes I and II were released, a European fan sent Mrs. Pepper a bootleg recording of Art’s May 14, 1981 show at Croydon, in England. The fan thought that recording was just too good not to be made more widely available and the widow concurred, resulting in her making this set Volume III of the Unreleased Art series.
For this concert, Art was in his fourth year with a unit that played behind him throughout most of the Indian summer period of his career. The drums were manned by Carl Burnett, the same drummer for Pepper’s curtain call concert the following year. Bob Magnusson played the bass, who Art believed was the top bass player on the West Coast. Milcho Leviev was on the piano, a refugee from Communist Bulgaria who back in his home country was a self-described “miniature Quincy Jones,” writing movie scores and symphonies for the state.
Art described this band during the concert itself as the best band he ever had. The names don’t usually come up in conversations about notable jazz sidemen, not even compared to the guys who replaced them just months later. But for Art, it was about the comfort level and rapport he had playing with these guys.
Typical of his playlist of that time, Art mixed jazz standards with his own tunes. Also typical of that time is Pepper allowing extensive playing time not just for himself, but for his band members, especially his Bulgarian piano player. None of these songs run less than nine and a half minutes, and a couple even stretch out to the twenty minute mark.
Even so, the jams stayed fresh and creative throughout. They clearly weren’t mailing it in.
Some highlights from the nine tunes played on this day:
Pepper’s gently swinging “Ophelia” is the only selection that also surfaced on his last ever concert. Here, the bass solo is superior, and Art’s second solo is much more extended. This tune contains perhaps Pepper’s most expressive and intricate playing of the entire set.
Art always enjoyed the playfulness and rhythmic complexity of mambos, and true to form, included one for this concert, “Mambo De La Pinta.” Magnusson’s ever-present, looping low notes anchor the beat while simultaneously keeping the melody in focus enough for Pepper to improvise freely. But it’s Leviev’s slowly building solo performance that’s most inspired on this song.
I always looked at the old standard “Cherokee” as a litmus test for the ability to play blazing, extended bop lines ever since Charlie Parker made it his calling card in the early forties. Pepper was not one to shy away from running through such a gauntlet. He states the theme indirectly before giving way to Leviev’s blazing right-hand runs that frankly, sound a little out of control at times.
Afterwards, Pepper’s alto proceeds to soar for five minutes straight, with hardly a false note and lots of flair and change ups. Burnett gets into the act afterwards via some three way call and response with Leviev and Pepper.
“Dedicated” is an original Pepper “dedicated” to John Coltrane, a man whose music and playing style Art deeply admired — to the point of him incorporating some of the great tenorist’s techniques into his own. This song employs that trance-like 3/4 rhythm that ‘Trane favored in the Atlantic years, and as Pepper plays a little like JC, Leviev is playing very much like McCoy Tyner. Per Mrs. Pepper, Art hadn’t played this song before or since.
The twenty-minute closer is a tune Pepper wrote only the year prior, “Make A List (Make A Wish).” It’s a classic jazz groover that Magnusson keys with a very insistent, steady bass. Around midpoint of the song, he changes his hypnotic line for just a minute to trade fours with Pepper, who ruminates for several minutes riding on that groove. The whole band seemed to be enjoying themselves so much that they didn’t want it to end.
It’s hard to believe that this recording was a bootleg, by the way; the sound quality is uniformly good. Unless the recorder was a real pro, Wayne Peet did a bang-up job on the mastering.
The 2-CD set is nicely supplemented by some well-written liner notes by Laurie. At the end of it, she describes Leviev’s recent reaction after hearing these discs:
“We were so good.” He sounded awed. “We were so good!“
Funny, but that’s the same thought I had from listening to The Croydon Concert: they were so good.