Graded on a Curve:
Art Pepper Presents “West Coast Sessions!” Volume 5: Jack Sheldon & Volume 6: Shelly Manne

Those with a passion for jazz might already be familiar with the final two installments in Art Pepper Presents “West Coast Sessions!” As part of a high-profile late-career resurgence by the giant of West Coast saxophone, they’ve been previously reissued in one big block, but for this latest round Omnivore Recordings has taken a more sensible approach, separating each studio date, placing any alternate takes at the end of the CDs, adding superb notes from Pepper’s wife Laurie, and casting a dual spotlight on the altoist and the original LPs’ contractually mandated leaders; for Vols. 5 and 6, that’s trumpeter Jack Sheldon and drummer Shelly Manne. Completing a sweet run of discs, both are available now.

The skinny on these sets is that post-comeback Art Pepper, locked into an exclusive leadership contract with the Galaxy label, found additional work as a sideman through his wife Laurie’s savvy maneuvering. The main requirement of the small Japanese company Atlas was that the results fall into the West Coast category, but as Pepper asks in the liners to Vol. 6, what is West Coast jazz exactly?

She partially answers the question through her mention of a Bill Claxton-Buddy Collette composition that led off the self-titled ’55 debut from the Chico Hamilton Quintet. The tune is “A Nice Day,” and Pepper goes on to emphasize the unlikelihood of any ’50s New York jazzer adorning a piece with such a title. The observation underscores the difference between scrapping-to-survive NYC and the more temperate, easygoing Cali lifestyle, but she makes a more salient point in observing how musicians move around physically, grow creatively, and defy regional categorization as often as they reinforce it.

The list of players that fall at least partially into the West Coast cool jazz zone is long and wide. A sampling of varied names: Pepper, Hamilton, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre, Fred Katz, Hampton Hawes, Jack Montrose, Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich, and the ostensible leaders of the Atlas originals of Vols. 5 and 6, Jack Sheldon and Shelly Manne.

In the notes, Laurie states that Vol. 6 is the one album in the “West Coast Sessions!” series where the pretense of Art as sideman became something like fact, and listening to its contents backs her up. More than the earlier entries in the series, two of which team Pepper with fellow saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Lee Konitz, and a pair that elevate the artistry of an underrated veteran in pianist Pete Jolly and a younger adept to the scene in trombonist Bill Watrous, Vol. 6 connects like a bunch of guys getting together to play some tunes.

But this is not just any group of guys. Manne is arguably the premier drummer in the whole West Coast shebang (his only real challenger is Hamilton), so Laurie’s statement that he gracefully took charge of any gig she ever witnessed him play registers without exaggeration. Like Art Blakey on the East Coast, Manne recorded a ton as a leader, which is unusual for a drummer who’s not a brazen limelight hog, and he backed up a long list of major names on classic discs.

The results here are energetic yet relaxed, with Pepper getting into the spirit of the occasion and just going with it. Jolly and Watrous are in the band, as are West Coast vets Bob Cooper on tenor and Monty Budwig on bass. It’s basically a ’50s West Coast reunion with Watrous’ invitation intensifying the spark; he contributes substantially throughout, and in particular to opener “Just Friends,” a tune that’s also heard on the Watrous-led Vol. 4.

It’s upbeat, with the three horns tangling productively at the start and then flowing into consecutive solos. As elsewhere in Pepper’s comeback catalog, his playing is accented with tough barbs and sharp quick stabs that surely reflect life experience but also help to steer matters, here and elsewhere, away from mere modern jazz nostalgia. The choice of opener helps in this regard, as do the short solo spots of Jolly, Budwig, and Manne, with the running order highly familiar in post-bop terms yet transcending the formulaic, especially in Manne’s case, as the three-horn weave returns for the finish.

It’s no secret that Pepper loved playing ballads, and his commitment to their essence regularly elevated them beyond mere romantic tropes. His engagement is shared by the band during “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” which is played at a strikingly slow clip without getting soporific, with Watrous’ ‘bone managing to evade faltering into an overwrought velvet haze. Rhythm sections don’t exactly shine in balladic environs, but Budwig’s non-clichéd approach is a definite plus here.

As a lover of blues over ballads, “Hollywood Jam Blues” is a personal highlight, combining erudition with funk as it widens the set’s stylistic range without strain, it further cements that Vol. 6 isn’t just striving to replicate the participants’ West Coast heyday. “Lover Come Back to Me” extends this scenario, kicked out crisp and speedy like they had a train to catch, the cohesiveness starting with Budwig and Manne and working its way into the horns and keys. After it, “Limehouse Blues” reverts into lyrical swinging mode with plenty of subtle shifts; Jolly is splendid throughout.

That leaves consecutive takes of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” to round out the disc, the longer alternate served up last, and I agree with Laurie that it’s the better of the two. I mean, there’s nearly four minutes more of it with nary a hint of unnecessary padding out; it provides a fine capper to the album’s loose, personable, yet gutsy appeal. Manne may have taken charge, but from this remove it’s hard to tell. Vol. 6 doesn’t feel like it was spawned from hierarchy; instead, to reference the opener, the room was full of “Just Friends.”

Sheldon was an old pal as well, having played with Manne on ’56’s The Return of Art Pepper. Like a lot of West Coasters (Manne included), he ended up working extensively in television, serving as musical director of the Merv Griffin Show, landing acting gigs and even singing the “I’m Just a Bill” song from the Schoolhouse Rock Saturday morning educational TV series.

That last credit is surely cool, but on the whole Sheldon’s career trajectory deviates from the romantic notion of jazzman longevity, which is perhaps why he’s not as enthusiastically remembered as some of the other West Coaters mentioned up top. Frankly, this is some considerable short-shrift; not only does he play superbly across Vol. 5, impressively hanging with Pepper’s younger touring band, which included Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev, bassist Tony Dumas, and drummer Carl Burnett, but on the final bonus track, Sheldon nearly steals the show.

The sound is distinct from Vol. 6, with Leviev bolder at the bench than Jolly, the rhythm section funkier in their swing, and Pepper’s solo-edge more frequent as he gets into a groove with Sheldon. They open with “Angel Wings,” one of three tunes reprised from The Return of Art Pepper, and the reading is vibrant, with surprises delivered by Pepper and Leviev, especially during the pianist’s short exchange with Dumas.

“Angel Wings” does emphasize the West Coast objective, but the oft-played chestnut “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” offers solid post-bop that could’ve slain them at Birdland. Sheldon’s solo bookends to “You’d be So Nice to Come Home To” enhance some sweet mid-tempo swinging, but even better is the faster pace and higher energy of “Jack’s Blues.”

“Broadway” and the Pepper composition “Minority” are the other replays from The Return of Art Pepper, each handled with aplomb, particularly the opening slinkiness of the latter as it transitions into familiar post-bop territory. Both tunes are represented with alternates, as are “You’d be So Nice to Come Home To” and “Historia de un Amor.”

Written by Panamanian Carlos Eleta Almarán and sung on the disc’s closer by Sheldon in Spanish, “Historia de un Amor” excels through warmth and depth to elude jazz vocal norms. The trumpeter was known for his outgoing comedic flair, but here he’s all seriousness, and while the released instrumental take, like much of Vol. 5, is a showcase for soloing, for this edition’s unexpected finale Sheldon steps into the spotlight with confidence. It underscores Pepper’s unselfishness as being more than just a contractual smokescreen.

Furthermore, the vocal track’s appearance derives from a cassette in Laurie’s possession, and it’s speculated that the source tape has been long erased. The belated appearance reinforces these six volumes as far more than a typical series of reissues; Art Pepper and his bands provide the goods as anticipated, but the care taken in the notes and assemblage raise matters to a higher level. Kudos all around.

Art Pepper Presents “West Coast Sessions!” Vol. 5 Jack Sheldon
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Art Pepper Presents “West Coast Sessions!” Vol. 6 Shelly Manne
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