The Hollywood All-Star Sessions
At last, they're here! Seldom heard in America, these are the seven albums that Art Pepper recorded for Japan's Atlas label between 1979 and '82. Since he was contracted exclusively as a leader to Galaxy, he had to pretend to be a sideman; Bill Watrous, Jack Sheldon, Pete Jolly, Sonny Stitt, Shelly Manne and Lee Konitz were the good-natured friends whose names appeared in big letters on the original LPs. Nevertheless, it was Pepper who selected the bands and collected the biggest paychecks. The cover photo of the Jack Sheldon LP told the story: Sheldon glumly points at Pepper, who gloats over all his loot.
To some extent Pepper went along with the pretense. He chose to play some tunes that the purported leaders favored, and in fact Manne and Konitz took charge of the final two albums. The darkness of his quartet CDs-in the form of modal moods, very long minor-key solos and long, self-flagellating intros and codas-is largely absent. Instead, here are bright tempos, many chord changes, 4/4 meters and mostly a 1950s West Coast jazz atmosphere and repertoire. Nevertheless, most of the players are Pepper loyalists, especially drummer Carl Burnett (on four albums) and bassist Bob Magnusson (three albums). There is the same range of success and failure as on his quartet Galaxies; the Sheldon and Konitz sessions are among his career highlights.
Pepper is also the dominant soloist, in the heart-on-his-sleeve style of his second career (post-1974). His solo dramas are so sensitive to linear structure, including great care for registers, melodic elements, phrase contrasts. Along with the clear, beautiful tone, he now makes extensive, self-conscious use of expressive features-slightly off-pitch notes; bent notes; harsh, strained high and low notes; sudden, brief squalls; low-register phrases; short, muffled phrases-that add to the terrific tension of Pepper's irregular-length phrases and rests (by now Pepper's phrasing is more broken than ever). Some alternate versions point up the great care that went into Pepper's soloing, such as his restrained third chorus on both takes of "Funny Blues" (with Watrous) and the Lester Young phrasing, with long, bent tones, in the second choruses of both "Broadways" (with Sheldon).
This collection kicks off with elated trombone soloing by Bill Watrous in "Just Friends." A solo trombone feature is omitted from this box, but there are two excellent takes of "Angel Eyes," Pepper's solo feature-with its minor key, a perfect ballad for him. The alto solo in "Begin the Beguine" starts with splintered, tortured phrases before magically turning into flowing lines. Everyone sounds inspired on this session, and the Pete Jolly sessions are on a similarly high level. While Pepper stretches out, Jolly proves a sometimes witty but usually self-effacing pianist; for example, in contrast to the altoist's intensity in "Everything Happens to Me," Jolly invents an especially quiet, simple ballad chorus. These are really Pepper Quartet works, with especially fine "I Surrender, Dear" and "Out of Nowhere." Too bad there was no room to stretch out on drummer Shelly Manne's sextet date. The attraction is the contrast of Bob Cooper's tenor solos, so legato and full of mellow, post-Pres melody, with Pepper's alto tension, brittle phrasing and evolving forms. Watrous (less melodically interesting this time) and Jolly (more forward this time) return, and Monty Budwig is the only bassist in this box who plays with an attractive, true bass sound. Again and again the saxes are a delight; don't miss "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You."
On the Jack Sheldon sessions, hear the intensity of "Jack's Blues," the close motivic construction of Pepper's strolling choruses and his expanded range after the piano enters, also the fine shaping and bebop flair of Sheldon's trumpet solo. In fact, his trumpet solos are lovely, but they usually are concise and at least seem laid back next to the altoist's passion. Pepper plays beautiful melodies on "Broadway" and brilliant, fervent solos otherwise. "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" is a model of form, with strains of long lines alternating with strains of splintered phrases; he is incredibly poised in the fast "Angel Wings," now advancing, now hesitating, predicting or delaying changes, then charging ahead. He's possessed by the spirit of Emily Bronte's Heathcliff in "Historia de un Amor," with agonized high and low notes and squalls.
Two Sonny Stitt albums may have seemed like a good idea, but the execution was botched. By then, in nightclubs, Stitt usually played Lester Young-styled tenor and included occasional Charlie Parker-styled alto solos for relief. This time Stitt stuck to alto; Pepper also made the mistake of choosing a program of weary, old, jam-session favorites. The contrast of phrasing is interesting, especially in the exhaustive chase choruses, for latter-day Pepper's lines are far more broken than Stitt's bebop. But on the first album, after Stitt's Bird cliches and Pepper's diffuse solos, only pianist Lou Levy is flowing and inventive. The second album has both of them playing hot tenor on "Lester Leaps In," with extensive chases. In the end Pepper gave up, and padded out the second album with two of his ballad features.
By contrast, the first two original post-Parker altoists truly challenge each other on the Lee Konitz sessions. There's an edge of rivalry here that results in part from Konitz's sly humor and fondness for lyric interplay, and in part from the saxmen's shared love of Lester Young-inspired melody and beautiful alto-sax sound. Two blues are especially potent, with Konitz creating a melodic tension that dares Pepper's more complex tensions; Konitz's wobbly bent tones seem to mock Pepper's emotive phrasing. It's hard to tell who is who on the "Whims of Chambers" chase choruses, until a climactic high note by Konitz early in the second chorus leads Pepper to respond with vivid double time. Konitz's choice of "Anniversary Song" seems to drive Pepper into a fury; "Cherokee" has lovely eights and fours; the rest of the disc, too, is full of invigorating chase choruses and saxophone duets-here, friends, is the joy of jazz. The creativity of this meeting rivals Pepper's wonderful 1956 albums with Konitz's old mates Warne Marsh and Ted Brown.
Pepper's work with these friends adds a wealth of warmth and creativity to the documents of his second career; this box is certainly music to raise the spirits. And here's a concluding cheer for Laurie Pepper's frequently incisive, frequently biased, always fascinating program notes.