Art Pepper – Unreleased Art, Vol. II: The Last Concert May 30, 1982 (2007)

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by S. Victor Aaron

There’s often a certain poignancy inherent in the last recordings of great musicians, and last October we examined notable final recordings of such jazz legends such as Bill Evans, Clifford Brown and John Coltrane. In that article, Goin’ Home by alto saxophonist Art Pepper was cited as a notable, delightful coda to a career that saw a lot of ups and downs but ended on a big upswing.

Until this past spring, Goin’ Home represented Pepper’s official coda to the world. However, on the twenty-fifth anniversary this past spring of Art’s final public performance at the Kool Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C. on May 30, 1982, his widow Laurie released an audio document of that last concert.

Actually, it was Laurie herself who made this recording possible to begin with, much less see the light of day. Voice Of America had requested to tape the show and once she was assured that VOA wasn’t staffed by neo-Nazis (which Benny Goodman supposedly cited as a reason for refusing the same), then Mrs. Pepper granted the permission.

The Kool Jazz Festival performance is the second part of a series of never-before released (legally, at least) live recordings of her late husband that she is releasing under her private “Widow’s Taste” label. In doing so, Mrs. Pepper seeks to turn others on to the overlooked artistry of Art. In her own words:

1. I’m introducing truly unreleased and unheard Art to people who love him and want to hear him.
2. I’m introducing Art Pepper to people who thought they knew what jazz was (incomprehensible bebop), so they can correct that awful impression and fill their lives with soulful beauty.
3. I’m introducing Art Pepper to people who thought they knew what jazz was (Kenny G) and didn’t like it. If you like Kenny G, just go away. There’s nothing for you here.

For his final performance, Art Pepper was accompanied by Roger Kellaway on piano, David Williams on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. This constituted Pepper’s regular band at this time, sans pianist George Cables, who had just accepted a more lucraative position as Sarah Vaughn’s musical director. Kellaway, however, filled in just fine. (Just for grins, go look up who composed the music for the closing theme song to the “All In The Family” sitcom).

The recording quality is generally good; the miking seemed to be about right, but the sound quality sounded a bit muffled. Overall, though, it’s quite bearable and well above bootleg caliber.

The set starts off with a hard-swinging bluesy original, “Landscape,” which finds every member of the band in a fiesty mood (Burnett is nearly destroying his drum kit). Pepper is nimbly hitting every note bang on through some tricky passages, and he and Kellaway are playing in perfect sync through some staggered note sequences.

“Ophelia,” also written by Pepper, takes it down just a notch. Pepper leads off with an imaginative, lyrical improvising, while Kellaway follows with some Oscar Peterson-like jamming on his solo turn. “Mambo Kayama” is the extended piece of the set; a decidedly funky number that shows off Pepper’s ability to be creative within the pocket. It also rests any notion that his playing was too old fashioned to be flexible.

For the standard “When You’re Smiling,” which he dedicated to his old childhood pal Zoot Sims, Pepper switches to clarinet, an instrument that for not being his primary one, is so well mastered by Art he could have stood toe to toe with Buddy deFranco. Even though the tune selected for showcasing the instrument is a pretty old-fashioned pedestrian one, Pepper plays it with just the right dosage of swing and bop, and never overdoes the sweetness so that it sounds baroque and cliched.

Sixteen days after his last performance at Washington’s Kennedy Center, Art Pepper died suddenly at the age of fifty-six. After leading a life controlled by a harrowing drug addiction and all the consequences that brought him, Pepper not only repaired his life, he devoted himself fully to his music, making his last few years his most fruitful.

He left this world at the top of his game, as one of the world’s foremost alto sax players. Like Clifford Brown, the last performance of his life was one of confidence and vitality that belied the fate soon to greet him. And now, we can confidently state these things because of Unreleased Art, Vol. II.

P.S.–Unreleased Art, Vol. 1, which chronicles a concert in November, 1981 and released late last year, is also worth checking out. Here are two good reasons why: George Cables, and Art’s smoldering performance on “The Straight Life.” Chops, baby, chops!

Purchase: Art Pepper – Unreleased Art, Vol. II: The Last Concert May 30, 1982

Purchase: Art Pepper: Unreleased Art, Vol. 1, The Complete Abashiri Concert

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