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September 2005

Art Pepper
Mosaic Select: Art Pepper
Mosaic Records

In 1954 Art Pepper finished his first jail stint for narcotics in Fort Worth, Texas, and returned to his home in Los Angeles, eager to get his act together again. Within a few years he was in the studio, cutting a handful of classic albums for Aladdin. This marvelous three-CD box in the Mosaic Select series collects the sessions he recorded between August of 1956 and April of 1957, including four albums issued under his own name—The Return of Art Pepper, Modern Art and The Art of Pepper—and two sideman dates under the leadership of drummer Joe Morello and tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins. Of course, Pepper would continue to have drug problems, but this music definitively proves his genius and creative hunger; it represents one of his most dynamic periods, presaging the killer albums he cut for Contemporary over the following three years.

If The Return of Art Pepper sounds a bit shaky, it wasn’t the leader’s fault. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon simply didn’t have chops or ideas to keep up with Pepper, and while he’s an adequate blower, he’s easily outdone; the rhythm section of Shelly Manne, Leroy Vinnegar and Russ Freeman fares better. Unsurprisingly, some of the strongest performances are without the trumpeter, including tender readings of ballads like “You Go to My Head” and “Patricia,” yet even on the brisk uptempo numbers Pepper vibrantly balances the derring-do of bebop with the more controlled, nuanced tone that dominated so much West Coast jazz of the era.

Pepper blasts out of the gate on the Morello session—with vibist Red Norvo, pianist Gerald Wiggins and bassist Ben Tucker—with a high velocity reading of his classic “Straight Life,” and the session continues apace with bebop frenzy, even when the tone is relatively subdued. More exciting is the fantastic quartet date Modern Art, on which we get to hear the leader strip things down and excel on the blues. Supported by Tucker, Freeman and drummer Chuck Flores, Pepper whittles away anything extraneous and unleashes a mile-deep brand of emotional grace; his duet with Tucker on “Blues In” is nothing short of transcendent. His Paul Desmond-like sound here is pure beauty, and this album has to rank as one of the greatest and most poignant of all the late-’50s albums cut in Los Angeles. The disc is rounded out by five tracks with Perkins, as well as Tucker, drummer Mel Lewis and pianist Jimmy Rowles.

The final disc is another quartet session with Tucker, Flores and the great Carl Perkins on piano, who brings a greater presence and density, but not enough to erase Pepper’s magic buoyancy. At times the group sounds a bit listless, but it’s still a gem, and Pepper was nearing one of his greatest artistic peaks.

Originally published in September 2005
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