Graded on a Curve: Pepper Adams with the Tommy Banks Trio, Live at the Room at the Top

Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams had a long, fruitful career, recording extensively as a leader and appearing on roughly 600 records as a sideman. Along the way, he played gigs all over the world, with the vast majority now lost to time. Live at Room at the Top is an exception. Featuring Adams with the Tommy Banks Trio; that’s Banks on piano, Bobby Cairns on electric bass, and Tom Doran on drums, the contents were captured on the top floor of the University of Alberta student union building in Canada on September 25, 1972. Documenting hard-bop at a high level in an era when it was supposedly in decline, it’s out now on 2LP (for Record Store Day) and 2CD from the Reel to Real label.  

Folks with a casual interest in jazz might not register the name Pepper Adams. The most famed baritone player in jazz probably remains Gerry Mulligan. There’s an good chance that fans of Duke Ellington will be familiar with Harry Carney, while lovers of avant-jazz might know Hamiet Bluiett. If the names Cecil Payne, Serge Chaloff, and Charles Fowlkes ring bells of recognition, it’s safe to say that the individual hearing them is more than a casual jazz fan.

However, anybody familiar with Charles Mingus’ Blues & Roots has heard Adams, as he delivers an amazing spotlight-solo on that album’s “Moanin’.” That record, which makes the list of Mingus’ masterpieces, also serves as a fine introduction to Adams, as does 10 to 4 at the 5 Spot by Adams’ quintet, recorded in 1958, a sorta dry run for the co-led quintet with trumpeter Donald Byrd, who’s in the group on 5 Spot with pianist Bobby Timmons, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Elvin Jones.

But Adams was such a reliable player that pretty much any record he’s part of shines a positive light on his artistry (this is conjecture, of course; there are 600 of them). And this is indeed the case with Live at Room at the Top, even as it stands more than slightly apart from the norm for live albums, having been recorded as part of a radio broadcast and then essentially lost until tenor saxophonist Cory Weeds tracked down the tapes for release on his Reel to Real archival label (home to albums by Cannonball Adderley, Etta Jones, Roy Brooks, etc.), a side label Weeds’ Cellar Live imprint.

The story of this set is best told in the accompanying booklet, which offers short pieces by Weeds and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan plus interviews with another bari blower, Frank Basile, and the gent who organized both the show and its recording, Marc Vasey. But in brief, Adams travelled to Canada to play between stints in his decade-long run in the noted big band of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.

The trip paired him with a band well-suited to the task but with little notoriety, then or now, outside of Canada. The use of electric bass might suggest a gesture toward fusion, but that’s not in Adams’ playbook. The reality is that Banks needed at bass player, and Cairns, who was primarily a guitarist, got the call. If not exceptional, Cairns’ playing is solid, and hangs well with Doran, who’s quite impressive, and Banks, who’s even better, getting in some splendid solos throughout, and particularly in opener “Three in One.”

Adams sounds best of all, his skills resonating in a unique manner, as this was clearly a “day’s work” kind of gig, and yet he’s really pushing, with three solos that hit the 11-minute mark. As an exploration of the bop style, Live at Room at the Top is very much about form, but with nary a hint of going through the motions.

The horn is appealingly rough, a fundamental element of the tenor elevated by Adams’ prowess. But he’s never pushing outside, even as the impact of Coltrane’s Classic Quartet is a pretty obvious influence. And the poise in Adams’ delivery makes the handful of squeaks across the four sides all the more noticeable as they were plainly not intentional.

This might read as a fault, but instead, it deepens the set’s endearing quality, with Live at the Room at Top standing as something of a corrective to the producer-driven false narrative of live jazz equating to perfection. Adams’ playing isn’t flawless. More importantly, the humanity shines through.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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