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.
The Toronto show won’t be anyone’s idea of the definitive Art Pepper recording, but neither is it the wreck it might have been considering his ever-volatile state. “A Song for Richard,” the opening track, was penned by trumpeter Joe Gordon, and Pepper spends much of the first half of its 17 minutes in an investigative mode, testing tone and tempo, before turning over the spotlight to Senensky and Piltch.
But Pepper is also confident enough, even this early in the set (Laurie notes it was probably actually the second song played), to quickly kick things up a notch. By track two, “Long Ago and Far Away,” his soloing is magnificent, furious and audacious. By the back-to-back “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “All the Things You Are,” midway, he’s on a consistent footing, the band is in perfect sync and there’s more than a hint of the flash that so often characterized Pepper’s best Contemporary label recordings of the ’50s. The Rollins-like “Samba Mom-Mom,” the set’s penultimate track, is bold and swinging. Pepper’s burly tone, both in his soloing and as an ensemble player, and his deft navigation of the rhythm make one sorry that the program, although nearly three hours long already, will soon draw to a close.
Regardless of what may or may not have been going on with Pepper pharmaceutically that night in June 1977, and what might’ve happened to him soon after at the Vanguard, he hit the mark in Toronto more often than not.Originally Published