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01/03/14

Art Pepper
Unreleased Art: Vol. VIII: Live at the Winery
Widow's Taste

Laurie Pepper is Art Pepper’s widow. Her Unreleased Art series has become a unique ongoing homemade documentary, a sequence of postcards in sound and words and pictures, mailed back to us from a rapidly receding past. It preserves moments from a jazz life of failure and redemption, self-destruction and triumphant creativity.

All but one of the first seven volumes come from 1980-1982, the last three years of Art Pepper’s turbulent life. They feature his regular working quartets. Vol. VIII goes further back, to a gig at a jazz festival in Saratoga, Calif., on Sept. 6, 1976, with a temporary rhythm section (pianist Smith Dobson, Jim Nichols on bass and drummer Brad Bilhorn).

The sonic quality in the Unreleased Art series is a crapshoot. Vol. VIII comes from a monophonic soundboard tape. It is foggy. Pepper’s alto is so thin and strident it sometimes sounds like a toy saxophone. But the sound is adequate to reveal how the Pepper of the mid-’70s, beginning his last comeback, was different from the Pepper of the ’80s. In 1976 he has monstrous chops but is less devastating. He is a little less wild, less on the ragged edge of blowing apart with ecstasy and rage, which is how he played at the end of his life.

“Caravan” snakes and careens, then rockets forward, but Pepper maintains control. “Straight Life” is also impossibly fast, yet clean. Pepper’s ballads were always soul-baring existential exercises. “Here’s That Rainy Day” is gorgeous but less wrenching than, say, “Goodbye,” from 1980, on Vol. VI. Dobson, a fine pianist now all but forgotten, plays delicate counterlines. For an encore Pepper does an erotic, slow, ad lib blues, a form he owned outright.

Vol. VIII is one more technically imperfect, unfiltered, invaluable glimpse into the life and times of a great American artist.

Originally published in December 2013
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