Graded on a Curve: Art Pepper, Art Pepper meets The Rhythm Section

During his career alto saxophonist Art Pepper cut many records, and every jazz-friendly collection should own at least a few. But if the matter boils down to only owning one, the choice is easy; it’s 1957’s off-the-cuff masterpiece Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. It features the troubled yet outstanding young horn-man in cahoots with Miles Davis’ unimpeachable rhythm team of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones.

Art Pepper lived one hell of a life, with large portions of it unpleasant, largely due to a heroin addiction that resulted in four prison terms. It’s all there in his book Straight Life, which rates with Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog and Hampton Hawes’ Raise Up Off Me as one of the very greatest of jazz autobiographies. Pepper was also one hell of an alto saxophonist, and additionally something of a rarity; a West Coaster who could make East Coasters happy. That’s to say he was able to play Cool but also wasn’t afraid of the blues.

Though he was co-leader on ‘56’s Playboys with trumpeter and Cool-kingpin Chet Baker, Pepper’s often identified with the West Coast more by simple geography than by the moods and textures of his playing. In truth Pepper was versatile enough to be open to numerous settings; he even hit the studio with Lennie Tristano-disciple Warne Marsh (those cuts can be found on the ’72 comp The Way it Was).

And Pepper ranks amongst a considerable batch of post-WWII Caucasian sax-men who could hold their own in a very deep scene: I’m talking Marsh, fellow Tristano-ite Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, and Phil Woods. That’s some very rich company, and like a bunch of those names, Pepper got his start in big bands, in his case first with Benny Carter and then through a long stint with Stan Kenton.

By the end of that run he’d escaped the anonymity that was frequently a lingering symptom of the big band rigmarole and gotten himself established as a major name; ’52 saw him finishing as runner-up behind Charlie Parker as “Best Alto Saxophonist” in the yearly Down Beat magazine poll, though it’s important to remember that popularity doesn’t necessarily equate with quality. Then as now, it often came down to being uncommonly handsome (see above).

So I’ll add that the following year Pepper was playing live dates with the trio of Sonny Clark, the brilliant and underrated pianist/composer that along with other sizeable achievements brought us the ‘58 Blue Note masterpiece Cool Struttin’. This association with Clark, captured circa-’53 from the stage of noted Los Angeles club the Lighthouse, reinforces that Pepper was no piker.

But to truly understand that the man had the chops and not just the face all one needs to do is sit down and listen. Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section not only helped to establish the leader’s blowing outside of a West Coast context, it also assisted in highlighting pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers (“Mr. P.C.” himself), and drummer Philly Joe Jones, the trio then primarily known for their employment by Miles Davis, far beyond the realms of mere rhythmic support.

The album also derives from Pepper’s most fertile period, roughly ’56-’60. It was before the law really cracked the gavel on him, though he’d already acquired his habit (story has it he shot-up shortly prior to making this very session). Other great records from those years include the aforementioned team-up with Baker, ‘59’s Art Pepper + Eleven – Modern Jazz Classics and two from ’60, Gettin’ Together with the later Miles rhythm section of Chambers, pianist Wynton Kelly, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, and the seemingly knowingly-titled Smack Up, a disc of compositions by fellow saxophonists.

But the best of them all is Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. It falls into the category of LP that a certain breed of jazz fan will reliably get all worked up and frothy over, their emotional zone aptly described as maniacally canonical. And sometimes this tendency can agitate my contrarian side, but in this case, no.

That’s because the entirety of the record actually sounds as shit-hot as it potentially should. And since legend has it Art didn’t even know about the session until that very day (January 19, 1957), was reportedly out of practice (there is some dispute about this), and then had to deal with a not very reliable alto and the damned monkey hanging on his back (the monkey being his habit, if you’re unfamiliar with the lingo), the already elevated status of this baby just climbs even higher.

Standouts include the band torching through Pepper’s signature tune “Straight Life,” the saxophonist’s implicitly agitated gestures and Chambers’ killer arco solo on “Jazz Me Blues,” and a pair of cuts from the pen of Dizzy Gillespie, especially the Latin-ish “Tin Tin Deo,” where Jones’ masterful touch and control of pace is just delightful.

But it’s not like I’ve ever found an uncertain moment on this gorgeous pup. Unsurprisingly, it opens with a standard, the group working-up a loose modernizing of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” with Pepper’s soloing making it immediately clear that he was up to the task at hand. At this point in his career he was a fleet player, but never too light, able to sound engaging at any tempo (knowing better than to bulldoze a song or conversely put ya’ to sleep), and his approach to standards is appreciative of the source but not overly reverent.

Also no shock is a major role for the blues. The wittily-named “Red Pepper Blues” is credited to Garland, and it’s a tune so unfussy that it could’ve easily been composed in the studio. Pepper’s soloing is impressive, but it’s Garland’s turn in the spotlight that nearly steals the show. However, “Imagination” finds the saxophonist in firm command, and the way he snakes around Garland’s beautiful and fragile bell-like improvising on “Waltz Me Blues” proves the man deserves mention in the very top rank of post-bop blowers, particularly in the period between the decline of Parker and the rise of Coltrane.

But “Waltz Me Blues” also offers Jones and Chambers (the bassist co-composing the song with Pepper on the spot) in splendid form. The version of “Star Eyes” goes down without a hitch (with fantastic drumming from Jones), and while the 2002 CD remastering added “The Man I Love” from the Gershwin Brothers to the end, I’ve always felt that the warmth and expert flair delivered by their reading of Gillespie’s “Birks’ Works” was the perfect closer.

Art Pepper’s post-needle late-career renaissance, which I think is as strong as Dexter Gordon’s last great creative push (hell, maybe stronger), is one of the more unexpected and rewarding twists in the whole Modern Jazz fabric. I’m very fond of Friday Night at the Village Vanguard with pianist George Cables, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Elvin Jones. But there is much more. Like Gordon, Pepper was not only a player, but a survivor.

And not to get all maniacally canonical, but even as right this very second dozens of Art Pepper releases are available, many of them digital, some on CD and a handful preferably on reissued vinyl, with the majority certainly worthy of ownership, there are also a slim few entries in his discography that any self-respecting jazz library simply cannot do without.

Any person interested in building up a fine shelf of improvisational beauty that happens to be a newbie to the work of this vastly important saxophonist, or for that matter the unfailingly amazing artistry (both singularly and collectively) of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Jo Jones, might as well make Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section their next stop. It won’t disappoint.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+ 

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