Art Pepper The Complete Art Pepper at Ronnie Scott's Club
uring a colorful and turbulent life that included armed service during WWII, an enduring battle with heroin addiction and multiple stints of incarceration, alto saxophonist Art Pepper managed to produce a catalog of recordings whose consistent quality seems all the more improbable. In the 1940s, Pepper played in Benny Carter's and Stan Kenton's bands, and in the 1950s, he recorded on the Savoy, Contemporary and Blue Note labels as both a leader and sideman, creating a string of albums of surpassing insight and lyricism that stretched into the 1980s. He respected melody, never subordinating it to artifice or whim, and this made him popular on record or in concert.
The sessions comprising this gorgeous seven-LP set are from 1980, a little more than two years before Pepper's death. The venue was Ronnie Scott's Club in London, and included are all of the numbers Pepper recorded over the course of two nights in late June. His quintet included Carl Burnett on drums, Tony Dumas on bass, and Milcho Leviev on piano. Two albums of this material, Blues for the Fisherman and True Blues, were released in the early 1980s on the Mole Jazz label, which originated from the record shop of the same name in King's Cross, London. Adding to their obscurity, both LPs were attributed to the Milcho Leviev Quintet, because Pepper was under contract to Galaxy Music. What makes this set now "complete" are 17 never-before-released numbers that come courtesy of Pepper's widow Laurie, who has slowly been releasing unknown live sessions on her own aptly named label, Widow's Choice.
High points abound. While the music gathers momentum from side one to side fourteen, it's possible to begin listening anywhere and be captivated. Pepper explains in self-deprecating fashion before "Ornithology" that he also plays clarinet, and then goes on to deliver a supple and charming performance on the instrument. This leads in to "Red Car," an energetic workout with a fat groove. "Arthur's Blues" percolates for over thirteen minutes, giving Pepper room to solo with graceful abandon. The set ends with "Blues for the Fisherman," a sprawling, long-form blues that's transcendent in its scale and feeling. Over half of the numbers are Pepper originals, and more still are longer than ten minutes, not a second wasted.
The stereo recording was done with multiple microphones and without any noise reduction, limiting, compression or equalization. This purity of approach shows in the product, which displays an up-close perspective, evenhanded tonality and wide dynamic range. As with some of the best classical recordings, you'll be tempted to turn up the softer parts, but you'll then be diving for the volume control when the quintet lets loose. Drums snap, the bass is taut and nimble, and Pepper's alto sax is resonant and biting. As with every Pure Pleasure LP I've heard, there is essentially no background noise. Even groove whoosh is minimal. The included booklet collects a biographical essay and interviews with Pepper that are fascinating reading from beginning to end.
Pure Pleasure's Tony Hickmott deserves generous praise for having the resolve and nerve to produce such a lavish and definitive set. It's a sign that analog playback is not just going strong but in the midst of another golden age.
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