Not every CD has liner notes that—in the very first sentence—describe the artist in question as “scared to death and therefore loaded out of his skull” as he “stumbled onto the stage” at a gig. It’s an eyebrow-raising setup, unavoidably shaping the way we approach the music. The author of these words is Laurie Pepper, whose memoir of her late husband, alto saxophonist Art Pepper (she was his third wife), was subtitled “Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazzman.” Although she’s frank about her late husband’s mental and physical state, she’s not being sensationalist but simply laying the cards on the table: Pepper’s dope habit is inseparable from an understanding of his work—as much so as Chet Baker’s, Billie Holiday’s, or Charlie Parker’s—and although he was in a rebound phase in the summer of ’77, it’s instructive to know that his demons were never far away.
Pepper, she says, was sober for the Toronto gig captured in this 10th volume of live, mostly late-period music, although it took place just a month before the “loaded” Village Vanguard show described above. Can any but the most dedicated listener discern stoned Pepper from straight Pepper? Maybe yes, maybe no, but there were also other circumstances shaping the music. For one thing, the New York shows were being recorded for a live album, and a very nervous Pepper was supported by a team of incomparable heavyweights: George Cables, George Mraz, and Elvin Jones. At the Canadian stop, the band comprised pianist Bernie Senensky, bassists Gene Perla and Dave Piltch, and drummer Terry Clarke. They’re fine musicians, each delivering more than capable accompaniment and solid solos for the admittedly unpredictable saxophonist, but they’re no Cables/Mraz/Jones. Although the recording tends to over-mic the altoist (the sonics in general are erratic), the band here veers from tentative, even lost at times—as if they’re reluctant to gear up to full strength for fear of spooking Pepper—to absolutely astral.