Graded on a Curve:
Art Pepper,
Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings

In 1979, while in the midst of a career-capping comeback, Art Pepper entered the studio to cut a record for Artists House, the label of producer John Snyder. Indicative of how things sometimes work, one album became four, released across the 1980s, with numerous takes left in the can…until now. As part of Omnivore Recordings’ unflagging dedication to returning Pepper’s late work to easy accessibility, Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings hits stores on September 13, holding five CDs featuring across-the-board exceptional players in tandem with one of Modern Jazz’s finest saxophonists.

Promise Kept might seem like an unwieldy hunk of music to contend with, but if lengthy, it’s easily parsed as the work of two top-flight bands comprising two sessions on opposing coasts (with distinct temperaments to match) as Pepper made good on a commitment to record an LP for Snyder’s small but consistently rewarding label (a handful of classics reside in its discography).

As said, four albums resulted, though only So in Love, the first, was actually issued by Artists House. The subsequent three, Artworks, New York Album, and Stardust came out after Pepper’s death via Galaxy and Victor in 1984-’85. With the exception of take two of “But Beautiful,” the entirely of disc five (titled simply Sessions) is previously unreleased.

Snyder, a jazz aficionado who circa the 1970s was also Creative Director for Horizon, the jazz label of A&M Records, had booked a tour for Pepper in ’77 that included gigs at the Village Vanguard. The success of those gigs instilled a desire in Snyder to record Pepper live at the storied New York club with an all-star group.

Unfortunately for Snyder, Pepper was under contract to the Contemporary label, so the results of the second Vanguard stint (again a major success in the saxophonist’s return to the scene) were released not on Artists House but through the company owned by Pepper’s longtime associate Lester Koenig. After Koenig’s death, Pepper signed with Fantasy but with the agreement that he be allowed to cut a record for Snyder’s label.

Soaking up the entirety of Promise Kept isn’t a formidable undertaking, but it is positively loaded with tunes (and a number of alternate takes, all worthwhile), so instead of a track-by-track rundown a few observations on the contents are more in order. Laurie Pepper, Art’s widow, offers quite a few in her notes for this collection, with the biggest one relating to how the New York and Los Angeles sessions differed in execution and atmosphere.

The New York date, which features pianist Hank Jones, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Foster, is portrayed by Laurie as tense. It’s what Art had described as a “battle,” a scenario he’d encountered numerous times across his career (his art and livelihood long delayed by drug addiction and incarceration); the battle to prove his worth as a player, and additionally, in relation to So in Love and New York Album, the battle to assert how a record with his name on it was going to sound.

Pepper won the first battle pretty handily, although that’s not the same as winning over everyone in the band (Laurie details some emotional detachment on the part of Carter). Regarding the second battle, Art was only partially successful, but with results that are never less than satisfying. With tension came a lack of communication in the studio; the Jerome Kern ballad “Yesterdays” gets assessed by Laurie as being played, to borrow a phrase from Chuck Berry relating specifically to Modern Jazz, “too darn fast.”

More to the point, they speed the tune up while playing it, which isn’t an unheard-of balladic move, but it really wasn’t Art’s thing. A point that was driven home to me very nicely across the six volumes of Pepper’s West Coast Sessions (released a few years back by Omnivore) was the saxophonist’s attraction to ballads not as an exercise in formalism but as vessels of true emotional expression. In this, he was something of an old-fashioned romantic in his approach to the standards.

And on the subject of tempo, I get the idea that the aforementioned Mr. Berry wouldn’t’ve dug any of the four takes of “Straight No Chaser”; the first and fourth run-throughs strike me as hurdling forth most intensely, which suits me just fine, as I differ from Chuck on the subject. I also enjoy both takes of “A Night in Tunisia,” though neither compares to Sonny Rollins’ sublime treatment of Dizzy’s tune on his A Night at the Village Vanguard.

On Pepper’s Thursday Night at the Village Vanguard, the album closes with his original composition “My Friend John.” Laurie describes as one of his “New York Charts,” so it makes sense that it turns up twice on the expanded New York Album and five times overall, as it’s also tackled by the West Coast band comprised of drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Charlie Haden, and pianist George Cables. Notably, Cables had played the tune as part of the Village Vanguard band (where he and Pepper were joined by drummer Elvin Jones and bassist George Mraz).

Laurie offers that the Los Angeles session was a much more relaxed affair, a point underscored by the sheer amount of tunes they cut across two days; of the five CDs here, three and a half derive from the L.A. group, though there are a handful of splendid tracks featuring Pepper solo, with “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)” closing the set on a high note. He also productively switches to clarinet for a few numbers as Laurie describes how the instrument’s presence directly related to Art’s comfort level in the studio.

Bonus material and alternate takes in particular can frequently bog box sets down, but that’s never really an issue on Promise Kept. In fact, the only time I really questioned the sequencing was during the consecutive versions of “My Friend John” on disc five, though hearing them back-to-back wasn’t without its benefits.

I don’t want to give the impression that the New York stuff is inferior; the grades below will further emphasize that’s not the case. If tense, the room in Sound Ideas studio in NYC was full of consummate players and pros. Carter might’ve been detached (to the point of passive aggressiveness) but he sounds fantastic during “Duo Blues.” Also, the often-discussed Coltrane influence on Pepper’s later work is occasionally heard in some of the New York material, though it’s never overstated.

In closing, anyone with an interest in the work of Art Pepper or later-period examples of Modern Jazz mastery are unlikely to be disappointed by Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings.

So In Love
A-

Artworks
A-

New York Album
A

Stardust
A

Sessions;
A-

Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings:
A

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