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Art Pepper: Blues for the Fisherman

Thomas Conrad reviews the latest in the 'Unreleased Art' series

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Laurie Pepper, Art Pepper’s widow, launched the Unreleased Art project in 2006, and this four-disc set is Volume VI in the series. The first five volumes contain valuable, mostly unreleased live performances from sonically compromised sources like soundboard cassette tapes and surreptitious recordings by fans. Volume VI is different. It is a professional remote recording made at Ronnie Scott’s club in London on June 27 and 28, 1980. Eight of the 25 tracks have seen the light of day before, as Blues for the Fisherman and True Blues, on two LPs from the British Mole Jazz label. Because of Art Pepper’s contract with Galaxy Records, they were issued under the name of sideman Milcho Leviev. Volume VI provides everything that occurred on those two June nights, including Pepper’s spacey spoken intros and several false starts.

They were two nights for the ages. Pepper was in the zone, playing with soul-baring passion and fearless creativity, track after track. He had his best band with him in England. Leviev, a Bulgarian pianist with serious chops who has remained in the shadows of jazz throughout his career, unleashes maniacal solos and incites Pepper with merciless comping. Bassist Tony Dumas and drummer Carl Burnett are locked into the energy.

By 1980, two years from the end of a very hard life, Pepper no longer played with the bright, pure, singing alto saxophone sound of Art Pepper + Eleven in 1959. His sound had become many variations of a naked human cry, straight up from the soul. He was not a perfect player. You could hear him thinking, sometimes marking time until the wind of inspiration blew through him, which it almost always did. Then he would suddenly erupt with lines that all connected into stunning spontaneous melodic effusions.

June 27 and 28 were the last two nights of a two-week gig, two sets per night, one set per CD. The consistency of Pepper’s urgency is extraordinary, and so is his range. He could play everything-including filthy, kicking, start-and-stop blues. On “Blues for the Fisherman,” the last tune on the last night, he is discursive and searing and autobiographical, all blood and guts until he releases into blindingly beautiful runs. He could play original, erudite analyses of Monk, like “Rhythm-A-Ning.” He could do daredevil displays of pure speed, like “I’ll Remember April” (twice) and “Straight Life” (once). Paradoxically, the faster he played the more seamlessly his ideas cohered. And then there are the ballads. On “What’s New?” and “Goodbye,” Pepper sounds like he is wrenching from himself two intimate harrowing stories.

The Unreleased Art series is important because Art Pepper has been dead for 29 years, his discography is voluminous but old, and jazz musicians, even those as great as Pepper, are always in danger of being forgotten. Blues for the Fisherman should keep that from happening-at least for a while.

Originally Published