Art Pepper – Neon Art, Volume One
(Omnivore Recordings OVCD-26. CD review by Andy Boeckstaens)
During its seven-year existence, Parnell’s in Seattle presented many legends of jazz including Earl “Fatha” Hines, Bill Evans, Sonny Stitt and Anita O’Day. In January 1981, the great alto saxophonist Art Pepper (1925–1982) visited the 125-seat club, and two selections from his two-night booking are captured on this CD.
Pepper’s work in the late 50s was very fine, but the music that he produced during his last comeback that began in 1975 was an astonishing valediction. This album was recorded 17 months before his death – when he already knew that time was short – and it suggests an unimpeachable joie de vivre.
There are just two tracks. The opening song’s title refers to the first brand new car that Pepper ever bought: a 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham. Red Car starts with a repetitive bass riff by David Williams; then pianist Milcho Leviev and drummer Carl Burnett join in turn to create a vamp that hails an invitingly simple, down-home line from Pepper. Typically, his solo builds gradually. You can imagine his eyes closed in concentration, sweat trickling down his face, his head jerking in time with the repeated notes, and you can see his body moving to short stuttering flurries, sustained lines and the occasional ecstatic shriek. Not to be outdone, the Bulgarian pianist fashions dense chords and thrilling right-hand runs in an outstanding feature that makes Brubeck sound delicate. He puts everything into it, and it’s wildly exciting. A similarly unsubtle passage emerges from Burnett as he maintains the rhythm and repeats snatches of the theme through a fierce and energetic solo.
Blues for Blanche – named for Pepper’s beloved white cat – is a little more elaborate, and it provides a framework for the quartet to dig in and play hard against a bright, bouncy melody. It’s perfectly paced, and unfolds logically without haste or waste. Pepper’s breathtaking solo is full of distorted, contorted and squeezed tones, allusive slurs and impassioned yelps. Once more, Leviev is on fire, and the rumbles and rampages of his rollicking, witty excursion take him to both ends of the keyboard. Williams is not very well recorded, but he makes the most of an adventurous episode that diverges gleefully from the chart. Burnett – Pepper’s favourite drummer – is right on the money again, and his incessant cymbal-centric beat is ideally suited to this tune.
Pepper toured and recorded frequently with Leviev, Williams and Burnett during his later years, but his widow Laurie believes that this was the only engagement that the four of them worked together as a quartet. The dynamic between these men is exemplary: they are accurate ensemble players, supportive listeners, and they tear it up when they are in the spotlight.
Although Pepper’s life may have been flawed, he had just about everything, musically: a beautiful tone, the skill to write absorbing songs, an innate feel for form, sparkling creativity (within a relatively mainstream style) and a desire to entertain. All of these qualities are on display here. Pepper is so good that I sometimes wonder why I ever listen to anyone else.
Don’t be put off by the 35-minute playing time. This album contains peerless jazz, and the sooner you buy it, the longer the pleasure will last.