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Pepper Adams with The Tommy Banks Trio: Live at Room at the Top (Reel to Real)

A review of the baritone saxophonist's two-disc 1972 live performance at the University of Alberta in Edmonton

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Pepper Adams with the Tommy Banks Trio: Live at Room at the Top (Reel to Real)
The cover of Live at Room at the Top by Pepper Adams with the Tommy Banks Trio

Most jazz musicians are underappreciated, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams included, but he suffers a double whammy on this count as his instrument also usually fails to receive its due. Although most jazz fans can name the canonical figures on the bari—Hamiet Bluiett, Harry Carney, Gerry Mulligan—and devoted ones can readily imagine the sound of others like Nick Brignola, Leo Parker, and Cecil Payne, the instrument has remained largely confined to providing a dramatic bottom for the horn sections of big bands. Yet Adams’ career is a vivid demonstration of the bari’s utility in small-group formats; his virtuosity catalyzed ensemble dates with ace players like Zoot Sims and Donald Byrd, and his work on Charles Mingus’ Blues & Roots, especially the testifying introduction to “Moanin’,” should be legendary. 

Adams passed away far too soon, at the age of 55 in 1986, and perhaps that has prevented him from gaining renown for bringing bebop complexity and lightning speed to his instrument. He furthered the case with his work in the ’70s, often playing with local groups; this two-disc 1972 date, for example, catches him with Canadian pianist Tommy Banks’ trio at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. 

The show offers a splendid showcase for Adams’ formidable technique and originality. He imbues standards like “Oleo” and “Stella by Starlight” with fresh ideas, and his renditions of Thad Jones’ “Three and One” and his own “Patrice” are particular highlights of this set. Banks and his trio provide stellar support, pushing Adams on uptempo pieces and framing his slower numbers. The recording comes with lavish notes and interviews, all of which indicate that Adams should be more celebrated, and that his horn deserves a revival.

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