Thursday, November 12, 2009

November 12: Art Pepper, "Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section"

Artist: Art Pepper
Album: Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section
Year: 1957
Label: Contemporary/OJC

One of the most difficult things to overcome during the boom of jazz in the 1950's and 1960's was for a musician to get out of the shadow of the giants who dominated the scene. Whether it was a trumpet player trying to be progressive without being compared to Miles Davis or a saxophonist attempting the same without the names of Parker and Coltrane being mentioned, making your own name in the scene could prove to be almost impossible. This was especially true of alto-saxophone players, as there were not many of note, and the shadow of Charlie Parker was both massive and imposing. It is also due to the dominance of the "big names" that history has somewhat forgotten many of the other players who made significant contributions to the progression of the genre. One of these slightly lesser-known musicians is a man who took on the aura of Parker and stands as one of the most heavily recorded performers in history: Art Pepper. With more than fifty recordings to his name, it is mind-boggling to think that the truth of the matter is, nearly every album in the Art Pepper catalog is so amazing that it is a "must own" record. Playing in both the West Coast "cool" and the East Coast "hot," Pepper proves to be one of the most talented and visionary musicians of what is largely considered the greatest era of jazz. Perfectly capturing everything that makes the music of Art Pepper so fantastic is his 1957 date with one of the finest rhythm sections ever, the aptly titled, Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section.

Due to the rather colorful life which Art Pepper led, there are many points of lore within the history of his recording, and the stories surrounding the recording of Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section are some of the most amazing. Though there are rumors of Pepper using a partially broken horn for the recording, as well as ones that claim he hadn't played for a few weeks, none of this can be firmly substantiated, yet it all contributes to the legend of both Art Pepper, as well as this specific recording session. First and foremost, it is widely believed that Pepper did not know about the recording session until the morning on which they were to occur. Secondly, the fact that he openly admired the rhythm section of Miles Davis (and the trio with whom he was to record were Davis' current backing group) makes it even more impressive that such amazing music was able to be produced from these sessions. Adding even more pressure for Pepper to perform at his best is the fact that the sessions were produced by Contemporary Records founder, Lester Koenig. In fact, it was largely due to Pepper's performance on Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section that led to him securing a larger deal with Contemporary, and each album that Pepper released on the label is truly phenomenal. Surrounded by all of this top notch talent, it is in some ways little surprise that Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section stands today as such an extraordinary and important recording.

While Art Pepper is unquestionably the star and focus of each track, one simply cannot overlook the fact that he is being backed by one of the most dynamic and talented rhythm sections ever assembled. The trio of backing musicians, having just completed the almost unimaginable year of 1956, which saw four separate studio releases with Davis, are in as good a form as ever, and the fact that all nine compositions were recorded in a single session stands as a testament to the level of musicianship shared between all four players. At the center of the rhythm section is man who is easily one of the most influential players in history, Paul Chambers. From his work with Davis to the work of his own quartet (their take on the classic "Dear Old Stockholm" which was recorded a few months after the Pepper sessions is THE definitive version), the innovations and impact are almost immeasurable. In fact, the legendary Coltrane track, "Mr. P.C." is named after Chambers. The other half of the "true" rhythm section is another jazz icon, drummer "Philly" Joe Jones. Equally as influential, Jones' style was adapted and copied by countless players who came after him, and everything that makes him a legend can be heard on Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section. Rounding out the backing band is one of the most unique and pioneering pianists in music history, Red Garland. It is, in fact, Garland who first altered the "block chord" technique into the common style that is still played to this day. Garland gave the technique a brighter, more dissonant sound, and this was a far better fit for an overwhelming majority of jazz musicians. The fact that Art Pepper found himself in the company of such jazz giants is one of the key reasons why Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section is so extraordinary, but it also serves as proof that he himself was of such stature that he could both garner and lead such exceptional musicians.

By far, the most unique and stunning aspect of the playing of Art Pepper is the sheer level of emotion that he brings to every composition. In many ways, the mood and tone of his performances overshadow the hot/cool stylistic aspects of the music, and such occurrences are rarely found elsewhere in jazz history. Whether it was his lifelong battle with drug abuse, his time in prison, or the years he spent cultivating his craft alongside the greatest jazz players ever, all of these life experiences are stunningly expressed in every note he plays. In many ways, it is this aspect that sets the performances of Art Pepper far aside from his peers, as regardless of if he is playing soft, subtle notes, or pushing louder progressions at full strength, every note he plays seems to overflow with emotion, and therein lies the true beauty of authentic musical expression. On Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, Pepper truly stretches his talent and moves to the next level, as it is clear that he is leaving behind the last vestiges of his own influences, and beginning to truly create and innovate a style all his own. This is shown in the way that Pepper works his way through the arrangements on the album, as his full range of talents are on display. Whether it is his completely unique, yet wonderfully delicate treatment of "Imagination," or the high-octane, amazingly bright original, "Straight Life," Pepper uses the album to prove beyond a doubt that he is one of the most talented players in jazz's rich history. One cannot accurately represent in words the power of the performances found on Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, and it is truly an album one must experience firsthand.

Though it is often hard to move beyond the more well-known jazz icons, the reality is, once one moves past the four or five "big names," one finds much of where the true innovation and genius of the genre lived. It is these smaller artists, who made it their mission to NOT live in the shadow of the more popular names, that truly served as the catalysts for the progression of the jazz genre. Within these pioneers, few were as influential and dynamic as alto-saxophone master, Art Pepper. Finding inspiration in nearly every grouping with which he played, it was his single day session with the then-backing band of Miles Davis that proved to be one of his finest musical achievements. Surrounded by three of the most talented and visionary players in music history, Pepper pushes himself to unexplored territory, and the album truly represents his transition into a true jazz innovator. Bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones remain today one of the most revered duos in music history, and pianist Red Garland makes it almost unfathomable that such talent was ever assembled in a single room. With the freedom and talent that Pepper is afforded with such a backing group, it is understandable that his own achievements are like none other he had previously recorded, and the music found on the record is nothing short of phenomenal. Though Pepper recorded a massive catalog throughout his career, none quite reach the level of truly awe-inspiring, absolutely magnificent musical majesty then one finds on his landmark 1957 recording, Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section.

Standout tracks: "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," "Imagination," and "Straight Life."

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