Graded on a Curve:
Art Pepper,
“West Coast Sessions” Volume 3: Lee Konitz and Volume 4: Bill Watrous

Today we remember Jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz who passed away on April 15 due to complications from COVID-19 with a look back from our archives.Ed.

Omnivore Recordings continues their welcome repackaging of six early ‘80s Art Pepper LPs with West Coast Sessions” Volume 3: Lee Konitz and Volume 4: Bill Watrous. Originally issued only in jazz-loving Japan with the crucial California alto strategically positioned in the sideman role for contractual reasons, their reemergence puts Pepper’s name back on the marquee alongside due credit for the initial leaders. While one objective of the series was to capture an informal atmosphere on standards, blues, and well-known tunes, the overall mood of these two installments contrasts markedly. With bonus takes and swell liners by Art’s widow Laurie Pepper, they’re available on CD.

With the arrival of these discs, Omnivore’s release strategy for this string of late-career studio dates by the long-struggling but ultimately triumphant West Coast saxophonist comes into sharp focus: divide the contents into thirds and pair a high-profile guest with a lesser-known but skilled participant for simultaneous release.

Earlier this year, Volume 1 offered Pepper’s fellow alto giant Sonny Stitt while Volume 2 spotlighted the comparatively unknown Cali pianist Pete Jolly; the upcoming editions will present a session featuring West Coast drum mainstay Shelly Manne and a set ripe with the trumpet of the far from forgotten (through sheer diversity of credits) but less celebrated Jack Sheldon.

Over three decades later, Omnivore’s teaming of figures firmly remaining on the musical radar screen with those familiar primarily to aficionados is smart, but the objective of Japanese label Atlas was simply to put some wax into the hands of jazz fiends; the original vinyl releases were titled High Jingo by Lee Konitz and his West Coast Friends and Funk’n Fun by the Bill Watrous Quintet.

Art Pepper presence is undeniably felt, if adjusted. Although his wife concocted the “sideman” scheme with the intention of eluding his exclusive contract with Contemporary/ Galaxy (succinctly, he was making up for 15 years of lost time on record due to his stretch in the pen), with the saxophonist (and in the case of Volume 4’s pianist Russ Freeman) Laurie, picking the players and wielding considerable input into the selections played, as related in Volume 3’s notes, a diminished role only in appearance still managed to produce a more relaxed Pepper in studio.

This laid-back circumstance is most tangible on the set with Watrous, perhaps in part due to harmonious temperament and similarity of background; Pepper did a stint in the big band of Buddy Rich, while Watrous served in the talk show ensemble of Merv Griffin. Neither job may seem particularly prestigious today, but there is no shame in a successful gig.

 

Still, it’s quite clear that the “no big deal” studio jam of Volume 4 has withstood the test of time over entertaining Merv’s live studio audience and witnessing the famous flare-ups of Buddy’s temper. Along with Freeman, who’d notably contributed to five of Pepper’s ’50s LPs (as well as roles in the groups of Manne and Chet Baker), the band is filled out with the saxophonist’s rhythm section at the time, bassist Bob Magnusson (he also appears on Volume 2) and drummer Carl Burnett.

“Just Friends” opens the record in lively fashion, ‘bone and alto intertwining at the start as Watrous takes the first solo. His tone and delivery are boppish and warm, as Pepper quickly enters with an assured, concise passage. Freeman comes next, followed by Magnusson and then Burnett; if the pattern is long-ensconced, the execution is well above the norm, with a touch of surprise as the horns tangle Dixieland style at the finale.

The Latin-tinged version of “Begin the Beguine” emphasizes how comfortable these guys were with an accessible groove, and Atlas’ title for the set makes total sense. Whenever it registers as a smidge too light, the post-bop swagger corrects the course. It’s followed by the first of two ballads, but in another surprise, master of the form Pepper lays out; he gets his shot later in “Angel Eyes” (presented in two takes), embracing romanticism while deepening it with emotional edge.

Instead, “When Your Lover Has Gone,” is a showcase for Watrous at his swooniest, but it’s not unappealing for all that. Freeman and the rhythm section shine, especially Magnusson, who refuses to pluck a cliched note. “For Art’s Sake” (ar-ar-ar) was written by Watrous for this session; it’s choppy rhythm makes Laurie nervous, but to me it’s reminiscent of the too busy (or show-offy) and yet desperately mainstream writing that big bands were favoring in jazz’s commercial decline (Watrous played with Maynard Ferguson).

Still, I agree with Laurie that the solos carry the tune, and it’s where Pepper’s playing is at its most restless. The saxophonist’s “Funny Blues” is arguably Volume 4’s highlight as everybody shines, with no lapse in energy on the alternate take. Al Cohn’s composition “P. Town” closes the original LP’s sequence as Watrous whips off a solo of lithe intensity; Pepper follows with Freeman-elevated panache and Magnusson and then Burnett get one more chance to shine.

The Konitz date retains some of the series’ general sense of relaxation, though the dual alto scenario (except on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” where Art plays clarinet) ups the energy considerably. In this sense, it’s closest in mood to Volume 1, except preferable to the at-times predictable back and forth of Pepper and Stitt.

Konitz and Pepper have contrasting, easily identifiable approaches, a reality reinforced by a photo in the CD booklet. Pepper is wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a tattoo visible on his left arm just above the wristwatch. Konitz is snappily dressed, but in the manner of a college professor, or less appealingly, like an accountant; he’s of the Tristano school, while Pepper cut his teeth in the clubs of Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

Still, Konitz is an integral part of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, and he in fact immediately followed Pepper in Stan Kenton’s big band, so if dissimilar they never clash. They feed off each other beautifully in opener “S’Wonderful” as Magnusson, the prolific session pianist and composer Michael Lang, and the solid if unknown drummer John Dentz fill out the band.

The word cerebral is often applied to Konitz, but it’s often a loaded term, regularly employed to seemingly knock down players more informed by the blues or embodying hard bop. Still, it’s impossible to deny the reality of Konitz’s style, and for many he’s a taste never acquired. But for those that dig him (and Pepper, natch), this disc should be a delight, particularly as it adds alternates of “S’Wonderful” and “Whims of Chambers.” Chosen by Konitz, his playing on the Paul Chambers composition displays a bluesy aptitude carried over into his own piece “A Minor Blues in F.”

Also of note is the tougher constitution of Pepper’s improvising throughout the album as he offers more of the edginess briefly on display in Volume 4’s “For Art’s Sake.” The spot in “A Minor Blues in F” where everybody momentarily drops out save for the horns is also a gas. “High Jingo” is apparently a standard that got so far removed from the source that it’s now credited to Pepper. In it, the altoist’s roots in bebop are on display as Magnusson and Dentz handle the tempo with aplomb.

Lang has a likeable style, and on “The Anniversary Song” he’s a bit reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, a similarity enhanced by the decidedly Coltrane-like compositional transformation. Between it and “High Jingo” sits Volume 3’s only ballad, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which indeed finds Pepper picking up the licorice stick. It’s a cool diversion, but mostly because clarinet is unexpected in a setting of this stripe. Konitz sounds fine, and they’re both in splendid form on the disc’s true bebop showcase, a spirited run-though of “Cherokee” that could easily convert a slew of Konitz agnostics to the cause.

The set with Watrous is a keeper, but it was also the first of the six to be recorded; nobody’s rusty, but as said, the casualness of which Laurie Pepper writes is nearer to a laid-back atmosphere, or the “fun” of the Japanese title. It has its appeal, but Volume 3’s titan meet-up was the last of the dates captured (Pepper died five months later) and the collective is sharp, even as Lang and Dentz are fresh additions. If not by a wide margin, it feels more vital.

Art Pepper Presents “West Coast Sessions” Volumes 3: Lee Konitz
A-

Art Pepper Presents “West Coast Sessions” Volumes 4: Bill Watrous
B+

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