Photograph by Laurie Pepper
In November of 1980, things were going pretty well for Art Pepper. His newly published autobiography co-written with wife Laurie Straight Life had been receiving positive reviews and he had recently completed a “with strings” record, Winter Moon which would go on to rave reviews, too. He also got his favored pianist, George Cables, back in time for this tour through jazz-crazy Japan.
It’s under these happy circumstances that we find Pepper for a recording of a show he performed in Osaka, Japan. Unreleased Art Pepper Vol. VII: Sankei Hall-Osaka Japan, November 18, 1980 is the latest in a series of bootleg recordings cleaned up and made fit for official release by Laurie Pepper. These Unreleased Art Pepper series chronicle the music in the final period in Pepper’s life, a man reinvigorated after many difficult years and reassuming his place as one of the finest bop alto-saxophonists to follow in the wake of Charlie Parker.
Pepper was actually quite pleased with the whole band, not just Cables. The twenty-two year old Tony Dumas was settling in nicely after a rocky start in his prior stint in Pepper’s band. Carl Burnett was whom Pepper explicitly described as his favorite drummer. Pepper used a mix of evergreen standards and bebop originals for his set list, which, admittedly, finds a lot of overlap with the set lists of prior Unreleased Art Pepper volumes. That’s to be expected, though, since these concerts were all performed at roughly the same time. Some lineup changes and variations in the mood of the band can and often do account for differences in the performances.
Burnett shows why Pepper loved him so much right from the start; he swings with such authority on “Landscape” and “Ophelia,” and seemingly communicating directly with the leader. The bebop gold standard “Cherokee” is played at a slightly slower tempo than its normal torrid pace, but it’s just slow enough to allow Pepper to add accents to his notes, making his solo perhaps more impressive than a straight blizzard of notes. Dumas has a great handle on this song, nimbly piloting his serpentine walking lines. Later on, Pepper is trading fours at first with Cables before bringing the song to a rousing conclusion. His original “Straight Life,” incidentally, is played more like other bands perform “Cherokee,” galloping like a horse at the Preakness, and Pepper has shown no let up in his ability to burn through impossible lines. Unfortunately, the taping of this song ended early, but given the heated performance of what was captured, it was wisely left in the album with a fade out at the seven-minute mark.
The clarinet was Pepper’s second instrument, and he put it to good use for “Avalon.” Pepper’s “Make A List,” which was brand new at the time, had quickly become the extended piece of his concerts, and this rendition is highlighted by Cable’s funky, insistent solo. Pepper gave him plenty of time to state his case and by the end of his run, it was case closed. Pepper led the band through the title song of the as-yet unreleased Winter Moon album he had recorded just a couple of months earlier. His articulations on the Hoagy Carmichael song aren’t the concise, note-perfect performance he gave in the studio, but it carries more passion. Pepper wasn’t going to end the set on a ballad, and he saved a blazing run through “Donna Lee” for last, highlighted by Burnett’s lively drums.
Considering that the record was culled from a cassette recording from an unknown audience member, the sound quality is quite good. Everyone in the band is heard, although at times I would have liked to have heard Cables a little better. The polite crowd didn’t create any noise that interfered with the performance, and Pepper’s saxophone is clearly heard projecting into thr audience. Under the circumstances and benefiting from Wayne Peet’s mastering job, this is not bad at all.
Laurie Pepper included a meaty booklet into the jewel case of this double disc set, full of candid snapshots she took of that tour and her equally candid personal thoughts and recollections from that time, a time she described as a happy one for her husband. But you probably don’t need to see the dozens of pictures of him grinning to know he was happy; the music performed the night of November 18, 1980 in Osaka, Japan affirm his contented state of mind.
Unreleased Art Pepper Vol. VII: Sankei Hall-Osaka Japan, November 18, 1980 is set for release on August 28, by Widow’s Taste Records.
Here’s a look back at our past thoughts on other great Art Pepper recordings. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
Art Pepper – Unreleased Art, Vol III: The Croydon Concert May 14, 1981 (2008): For this concert in England, Art was in the fourth year with a unit that played behind him throughout most of the Indian summer period of his career, and it showed on this excellent date.
Art Pepper – Unreleased Art, Vol. II: The Last Concert May 30, 1982 (2007): Art Pepper went out at the top of his game in a fine performance in Washington, D.C. just sixteen days before his death.
Gimme Five: Jazz’s greatest final recordings from John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, others: Pepper’s final studio recording Goin’ Home, an intimate one-on-one with pianist George Cables, ranks among the best swan songs in all of jazz.