Art Pepper was a white jazz saxophonist who specialized in a West Coast style of jazz popular in the 1950s and 60s. His catalog is vast and varied; his recorded career as bandleader began in the early 1950s on the Savoy label. His work as a sideman found him working with many of the jazz greats including Hoagy Carmichael, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and a host of others; in his early days he was part of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
Pepper died in 1982, leaving behind not only that catalog of sixty-plus albums, but a treasure trove of finished yet unreleased material. His widow Laurie Pepper created an imprint of her own – waggishy dubbed Widow’s Taste Music – to release the best of this previously-unheard music, In 2012 three of these were released on vinyl by Omnivore Recordings as volumes of a series titled Neon Art. Now in 2015, these titles are out on CD. Drawing from live performances in 1981, Neon Art Vols. 1-3 are crystal-clear recordings of Pepper playing onstage with some very talented cats.
The first disc in the series features only two pieces – “Red Car” and “Blues for Blanche,” but both tunes time out at around 17 minutes. The thrilling performances feature Pepper on alto sax, joined by the stunningly expressive piano work of Milcho Leviev, and the rhythm section of bassist David Williams and Carl Burnett on drums. Built around blues figures, both tracks on Neon Art Vol. 1 come from a single performance at a small Seattle venue, Parnell’s.
The second and third volumes in the series feature cuts that are sometimes shorter, sometimes even longer than the ones on the first volume. Neon Art Vol. 3‘s “Make a List (Make a Wish)” clocks in at over 24 minutes. But never does the energy or excitement flag. Pepper’s band on the second and third discs – sourced from four November 1981 performances in Japan – again features drummer Burnett and bassist Williams, but the piano chair is ably filled by George Cables. (Vol. 1‘s liner notes chronicle the defection of Williams after the Seattle dates, but he did return for the tour of Japan.)
The Japan dates, though recorded in concert halls, retain the intimate you-are-there vibe of the Seattle sides. When pianist Cables doubles Pepper’s sax lines, it’s a thing of beauty; when the two diverge, one comping while the other solos, it’s inviting and intriguing. As is standard with jazz, each player takes his turn in the spotlight, the tunes winding and twisting before returning to the head to wrap up. While most of the tracks are quite melodic, Pepper and band are unafraid to set out on music explorations that embody the hard-bop style, sometimes even venturing into free jazz territory. But the bulk of the music on these three volumes stays in a very accessible bag.
The early 1980s was no classic era for jazz; the worst elements of “smooth jazz” had rendered much of what passed for jazz as musical wallpaper, late-night FM musical fodder of the most blandly inoffensive kind. But Pepper’s jazz of that era as represented on the three Neon Art albums is nothing of the sort. Folding in elements of soul jazz (especially on the Seattle dates) and hard bop, Art Pepper’s music is finely textured, subtle and exciting. Fans of classic jazz that leans in a melodic, non-avant garde direction would do well to pick up all three of these new Art Pepper titles.