Various artists – Joy Road: The Complete Works of Pepper Adams (2012)

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It’s perhaps faint praise to call Pepper Adams one of the best of jazz music’s baritone saxophonists, so thinly populated is the confederacy of players on this most unwieldy of instruments.

Instead, as the sweeping new five-volume, 51-track anthology Joy Road: The Complete Works of Pepper Adams makes clear, Adams was one of the more underrated figures in the hot-house late-1950s hard bop scene — baritone or not. He played with a muscular, aggressive spirit that players like the far more famous Gerry Mulligan rarely approached, yet Adams could still perform on ballads with a well-conceived unsentimental acumen. In his moment, Adams almost single-handedly moved the baritone sax forward from the back sections of orchestras into the spotlight. The celebrated bassist Milt “The Judge” Hinton simply called Adams “the master.”

Just as interesting was this: Even as Adams made the most of the horn’s oversized tone, he was developing the ability to compose similarly penetrating songs — a focus for this new set, due September 11, 2012 from Motema Music. In both cases, Adams was probably overlooked in large part because, while he performed on some 600 dates as a sideman, he only recorded 20 albums as a leader. Many, of course, have since gone out of print. Too, Adams wrote the bulk of his original tunes between 1977-83, in a furious burst of creativity that coincided with his leaving the employ of orchestras like the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis amalgam to tour as a soloist.

Unfortunately, Adams was felled by lung cancer in 1986 — but not before meeting a thesis candidate with an interest in jazz named Gary Carner. The two became fast friends, and Carner began conducting extensive interviews with an eye toward helping Adams write his autobiography. When the saxophonist passed, Carner’s passion shifted toward protecting and promoting Adams’ legacy. Carner has helped organize Adams’ estate, launched a web site in his honor and written an annotated discography, all while continuing to work on an exhaustive biography. He also set about gathering these original compositions, booking recording sessions and assembling bands to recreate Adams’ lost repertoire.

The results are the authoritative, deeply involving, and grandly entertaining Joy Road, which is split into various settings that highlight the intricacies and swinging force of Adams at his best: Volumes 1 and 4 of the set, which focus on trio and quartet settings respectively, were led by pianist Jeremy Kahn, with an key assist from Adams acolyte Gary Smulyan. Volume 2 is led by pianist Kevin Bales, and also features guitarist Barry Greene. Volume 3 is a sextet date, arranged by saxophonist Frank Basile. The fifth volume focuses on vocals, with new lyrics by poet Barry Wallenstein added to classic Adams ballads — a lifelong wish of the late saxophonist’s — as interpreted by Alexis Cole.

Those looking for a quicker spin through this sweeping account of Pepper’s compositional prowess should head to Montema’s one-disc, 11-track sampler, featuring songs from each of the volumes — including the impish “Enchilada Baby,” the soulfully melancholy “Julian” (a tune co-written by George Mraz, and dedicated to Cannonball Adderley), the groove-laden “Claudette’s Way,” the lithe and swinging “Emphemera,” the vocal piece “I Carry Your Heart” (titled after an e.e. cummings poem read at Adams’ 1976 wedding) and the brawny title track, among others.

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Live music events associated with the release of ‘Joy Road’ include early September dates by Chicago pianist Jeremy Kahn featuring the work of Pepper Adams; the star-studded ‘Pepper Adams: Joy Road Celebration NYC’ on September 24-30, 2012; an Adams birthday celebration led by Pat LaBarbera in Toronto on October 6; and a forthcoming week of activities focusing on Adams in Los Angeles, featuring Smulyan, Dale Fielder and Eric Reed.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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