Album Reviews

Art Pepper

West Coast Sessions Vol 1 & Vol. 2

Artist:     Art Pepper

Album:     West Coast Sessions Vol 1 & Vol. 2

Label:     Omnivore

Release Date:     02/03/2017


Laurie Pepper, the wife of the late alto saxophonist, Art Pepper, continues to mine the rich vault of material recorded between the 1977- 1982, the last years of the jazz musician’s life. Once again, just as in 2015 when we had three volumes of Neon Art, we are blessed with three CDs that were recorded in Japan in 1979 and only issued there. Now they are available in expanded fashion to the world for the first time. Volume 1 contains two CDs and has fellow saxophonist Sonny Stitt as the leader. Volume 2 features pianist Pete Jolly as leader. So, the obvious question is: why are these Art Pepper sessions? There’s a clever explanation.

The Japanese label Atlas contacted Pepper, hoping that he could record for them as a leader, but Pepper was under contract to another label at the time. Laurie suggested Art record for Atlas essentially as a “sideman.” Atlas wanted the vintage bebop sound from the fifties and allowed Pepper to choose the leaders. Atlas insisted on all West Coast musicians. These are just the first installments of what is likely to follow in these series, as sessions were recorded with Lee Konitz, Bill Watrous, Jack Sheldon and Shelly Manne as well. Until his death in 1982, Pepper recorded prolifically, making up for lost time due to drug abuse and a prison stint.

The Stitt albums were recorded in July of 1980, and feature both the leader and Pepper primarily on alto sax, although both play tenor on the second CD for Lester Young’s “Lester Leaps In.” Lou Levy (CD 1) and Russ Freeman (CD 2) are the pianists, with Chuck DeMonico (CD 1) and John Heard (CD 2) on bass and Carl Burnett on drums throughout. The first CD, including the bonus material, has ten tracks, including Bird’s “Scrapple from the Apple” and “Wee,” along with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High.” The latter is one of many gems on Stitt’s 1972 masterpiece, Tune Up, among the first dozen or so jazz albums I bought. “Walkin’,” a tune I associate most often with trumpeter Clifford Brown from the classic Columbia compilation of Brown, The Beginning and the End, is especially sweet. Most of us jazz buffs are so accustomed to hearing these tunes with a trumpet and saxophonist that it is somewhat jarring and ultimately rewarding to hear Stitt and Pepper cutting each other. As Pepper says in his biography, Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, “…But Sonny is one of those guys, that’s the thing with him. It’s a communion. It’s a battle. It’s an ego trip. It’s a testing ground. And that’s the beautiful part of it…” CD 2 features more ballads like “Autumn in New York,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Lover Man.”

The Jolly sessions were recorded in February of 1980 with Jolly on piano, Pepper on alto, Bob Magnusson on bass and Roy McCurdy on drums. Pepper had recorded six albums with Jolly in the fifties, but Jolly had since become more active in TV shows and movies. Most notably, he played Bud Powell’s piano parts in Clint Eastwood’s film about Charlie Parker, Bird! Pepper also chose the rhythm section, both players of which were too young during the heyday of fifties bebop, but were in-demand session players at the time. Pepper is known for a couple of signature songs, “Over the Rainbow” and a ballad that he did in the fifties, rendered gorgeously here, “Everything Happens to Me.” The disc also has three versions of his original, “Y.I. Blues,” written for the producer of these sessions, Yasuyuki Ishihara.

As we’ve heard through these unearthed recordings over the past couple of years, Pepper can be lyrical, soulful and animated in both his solos and ensemble playing. Listen up and stay tuned. More is on the way.

-Jim Hynes

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