Art Pepper's Startling Intensity Captured On Live Recordings

Art Pepper's Startling Intensity Captured On Live Recordings

3:38pm Mar 30, 2015

Since 2006, Laurie Pepper, the widow of jazz saxophonist Art Pepper, has been releasing live recordings her husband made during the last years of his life. A new batch of these recordings from 1981 is out. Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says that Art Pepper played like he was making up for lost time.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Since 2006, Laurie Pepper, the widow of jazz saxophonist Art Pepper, has been releasing live recordings her husband made during the last years of his life. A new batch of these recordings from 1981 is out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Art Pepper played like he was making up for lost time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMBO KOYAMA")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: From 1975 till his death in 1982, alto saxophonist Art Pepper had one of the great jazz comebacks. He'd been in and out of prison and drug treatment programs for decades. But now, with the essential help of his wife Laurie, he got it together enough to begin recording again in earnest and to spend a lot of time on the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLEN'S ALLEY")

WHITEHEAD: Art Pepper on the bebop anthem "Allen's Alley" by Denzil Best. Pepper knew the complex language of bop inside out, but now he was looking for new paths through the old mazes. Sometimes he'd let his improvised lines get fragmented, in a way that might echo his halting stage announcements.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLEN'S ALLEY")

WHITEHEAD: This music's from Volume Two of three new live albums from 1981 all called "Neon Art," with fine backing from David Williams on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. All three discs are worth hearing, but if forced to choose I'd pick the second one. Like Volume Three, it was recorded on tour in Japan, with Art Pepper’s favorite pianist, George Cables.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLEN'S ALLEY")

WHITEHEAD: Art Pepper liked a rhythm section that wasn't afraid to push him, and he could play with startling intensity. In his last period he was audibly influenced by John Coltrane - specifically the later Coltrane many beboppers hated. Pepper's willingness to test stylistic limits and update his concept gave much of his late work edgy energy. A favorite vehicle was his tune "Mambo Koyama," where the band would stretch out over two chords and a catchy beat. In one improvised sequence from a concert in Sapporo, Pepper uses alternate saxophone fingerings to change a note's timbre from full-throated to nasal. Then he takes a quick trip into orbit and back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMBO KOYAMA")

WHITEHEAD: By now there's no shortage of live Art Pepper from his late years, but the "Neon Art" series on the Omnivore label really shows the excitement, heart and heat he could generate. Toward the end, Art Pepper sounded like he had something to prove every time he got on stage, and he proved it over and over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER THE RAINBOW")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed a new batch of live recordings by saxophonist Art Pepper from 1981 released by his widow.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll ask questions like, do conflicts of interest arise when judges are chosen through elections and have to raise money for their campaigns? Should a judicial candidate seek campaign contributions from lawyers who may appear before her or him? What about funding from groups with ideological agendas? We'll hear from former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Sue Bell Cobb and Billy Corriher at the Center for American Progress. Join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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