In 2007, twenty five years after Art Pepper’s death, his widow Laurie began issuing concert recordings of her late husband covering the period of his remarkable renaissance of the last seven years of his life. By working with — or to frustrate — the bootleggers, Mrs. Pepper obtained these rough recordings, handed them over to Wayne Peet for remastering, and issued good-to-great sound quality live records. This Unreleased Art series has been a “win-win” by making these live performances widely available for Art Pepper fans while recouping for Laurie some due compensation for his sweat. A third win comes from further solidifying the legacy of one of post-bop’s most electrifying alto saxophonists.
We don’t know how many of these concert recordings she has left up her sleeve, but we’re now up to Volume Eight with the impending release of Unreleased Art, Vol. VIII, Live At The Winery September 6, 1976.
With Pepper being remarkably consistent in his comeback period, the intrigue of Vol. VIII apart from the previous volumes is that the concert covered in this instance came years earlier, shortly following the release of his “comeback” album Living Legend, and the set includes three of Legend‘s six tracks. Moreover, this is Art backed by his just-assembled “Northern California” band: Smith Dobson (piano); Jim Nichols (bass); Brad Bilhorn (drums), not the bigger names that were to become a part of his touring band in a few years, but plenty competent. Derived from the soundboard, the fidelity is adequate, but the mixing is better.
Vol. VIII confirms what other mid-seventies Pepper recordings already suggest: that Pepper had regained all of his old mojo after substance abuse and rehab had sidelined his career for the better part of fifteen years. He swings like he invented it on the sturdy standard “Caravan,” tears through his rapid-fire lines on “Straight Life,” and aces the lyricism demanded of his own song, “Ophelia.” This is one of the earlier renditions of “Ophelia” captured live, a song that would remain on his set list to the end of his life.
Another one of the originals from Living Legend performed on this night was “What Laurie Likes,” where Nichols plays a funky electric bass line that would have been right at home on a Crusaders record of that period. It’s also where you’ll find Pepper’s great adaptive skills to contemporary sounds, playing along to the groove like Eddie Harris and tossing in outside jazz phrasings at the crescendo part of his solo. In typical fashion, a blues is included, which he waited until the encore to lay one on his audience, another Pepper-penned tune “Sarasota Blues.” Oh yeah, Art was a master of the blues, as this performance demonstrates.
There’s nothing to complain about the support he gets, either; Dobson follows Pepper’s solo on “Caravan” with one that’s just as vigorous, amply supported by Bilhorn’s forceful drums. Nichols’ Larry Graham-inspired bass solo on “Laurie” is a treat that was probably rarely heard in an Art Pepper concert, since Pepper would soon cease playing crossover songs like this one shortly afterwards.
That all said, perhaps the biggest treat of Unreleased Art, Vol. VIII is simply that it provides another occasion to go back and listen to one of the greats of the old school sax players. It’s another reminder that even most of the class of the new school still has a lot of catching up to do.
Unreleased Art, Vol. VIII is set for release November 5th, by Widow’s Taste Records.