This three-disc set, recorded live in 1974 at Donte’s in Los Angeles, is the latest entry in Laurie Pepper’s Unreleased Art series of posthumous releases featuring her late husband. The pairing of Art Pepper and Warne Marsh was fortuitous; they hadn’t seen each other, let alone played together, for almost 17 years. Marsh, in fact, wasn’t originally supposed to be there at all; he stepped in to sub for trumpeter Jack Sheldon. If stereotypes were to be believed, they were an unlikely pair—alto saxophonist Pepper, with his naked emotionalism, his spiky flights of exploration, his unerring swing roiled by fractured phrases; and Marsh, with his dry, oaken tenor tone, the studied logic of his lines built on chords and harmony rather than melody. The storyteller and the architect. The romantic and the rationalist. Dionysus and Apollo. Or, in the words of one “Larry,” who responded to Laurie Pepper’s Facebook request for thoughts on how the two might complement each other: “Warne was the boy next door; Art was the reason you wanted to move out of the neighborhood.”
As usual, though, stereotypes obscure more than they reveal. Pepper was an unerringly coherent soloist. Even his most torrid displays of technical and emotional fervor—or his most wounded vulnerability on ballads—were tempered with restraint, a refusal to violate the narrative arc of his storyline. Marsh, the “compulsive structuralist,” as critic Larry Kart has called him, nonetheless created music as freedom-bound and transcendent as Pepper’s.
With all that brilliance exploding in front of them, the sidemen—pianist Mark Levine, bassist John Heard and drummer Lew Malin—are relegated further than usual to the background, but their work is admirable. They avoid cliché and contribute solid support and brief, satisfying solos. Note: Bill Mays replaces Levine on the concluding “Cherokee.”
On numbers like “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Good Bait,” “All the Things You Are,” “Broadway,” “Rhythm-A-Ning,” “Yardbird Suite” and “Cherokee,” Pepper plays loose and breezy yet with a sharp edge, sardonic but never cynical, freely incorporating ideas from the multiple eras his career spanned yet beholden to none of them. Marsh, predictably, sounds more emotionally reserved, or at least cautious, but deeply soulful nonetheless. As his solos build, negotiating the songs’ harmonic angles with slyly inserted rhythmic and melodic curlicues, his ebullient swing and irrepressible joy are on display.
Pepper may well have been the supreme balladeer on his instrument, and offerings like “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “What’s New” and his signature, “Over the Rainbow,” find him coaxing deep meaning from each note, summoning intense feeling while avoiding even a hint of pandering. For his part, Marsh delivers his statements in a tone virtually vibrato-free, almost stolid, as if admitting he won’t even attempt to plumb the emotional depths mined by his colleague. His studied approach to improvising makes itself felt most strongly on these numbers. Logic doesn’t trump inspiration but grounds it; for him, control wasn’t a mark of conservatism but a proclamation of victory.