Song: "Straight Life"
Album: Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section
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Regardless of the era or style of music in which a performer plays, there is no question that one of the most difficult things to overcome is in the ability to make your sound unique within the genre that you play. Whether it is a guitarist trying to create a distinctive tone or approach or a singer attempting to have an individual sound or tone, it is this element which separates the true giants of music from the rest of the pack. Though this has never been an easy task, one can make the case that it was at its most difficult within the world of jazz during the mid-to-late 1950's, as the true legends of almost every instrument were in their prime, and it was nearly impossible to not be labeled as a "knock off" of one of these performers. In the world of saxophone playing, it seemed almost unthinkable to escape the shadow of Charlie Parker, and yet it was his ability to do just this, as well as compose some of the most stunning movements in music history which cemented the legend of Art Pepper. Taking an approach that was far more emotive and often more intense than almost any of his peers, Pepper stands today as one of the more easily recognized sounds on record, and there is no question that he reached his creative apex on his 1957 release, Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section. Standing as absolute jazz perfection from end to end, Art Pepper rarely sounded better than on the albums' high-point, the superb recording, "Straight Life."
To garner an album title as one finds here, it is safe to assume that the rhythm section found on the album holds some sort of significance, and in many ways, this is a massive understatement. The players found backing Art Pepper all across the album are none other than Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and "Philly" Joe Jones, the trio were best known as the backing team behind the one and only Miles Davis. Taking this into account, one would have rather high standards for such a recording, and it is on "Straight Life" where the quartet completely solidify as a single unit. The bass from Chambers stands as one of the finest moments of his entire career, as he brings a loose freedom that is rarely heard elsewhere, and one can almost feel the sheer enjoyment coming through in his notes. There is a tight pattern between his sound and that of Jones' drums, which seem to truly be in a world of their own, and it is often the way that he uses his cymbals which prove the most exciting on the track. It is this style and sound that Jones would also bring to later works with his previous band leader, and in many ways, one can see all three members of the backing band finding new ways to develop their own sound. Red Garland works as a fantastic contrast to Pepper's main lines, and it is within Garland's performance where one can hear and appreciate just how tightly the band worked as a single unit.
However, even though each of the backing members are given their own place to solo and shine, it is the performance on alto saxophone from Art Pepper that stands as the most amazing aspect of the entire song. Throughout "Straight Life," Pepper plays with an almost dizzying speed, and yet it is the precision with which he hits every note that stands as so stunning. At some points, Pepper is playing so fast that it almost seems as if he is pressing his band-mates to see if they can keep up, and yet he never loses focus of the main theme, or sacrificial any quality in this apparent pursuit of his maximum tempo. In fact, as "Straight Life" progresses, Art Pepper seems to be increasing his playing speed, and one can almost feel the song as having three different "gears," as he shifts faster with the end of each elongated phrase. It is the way that the blazing speed of Pepper's playing seems to contrast with the almost laid-back "cool" of the rest of the band that makes "Straight Life" such a significant moment in music history, as there are few other recordings from any point that so perfectly present not only the differences in the main schools of jazz at the time, but also how brilliant they could sound when they were properly combined. At every turn, Art Pepper seems to have a new musical idea to explore, and it is this upbeat, passionate approach which makes "Straight Life" the highlight on an album that is absolutely flawless.
Yet along with the phenomenal musical performances given by all four performers on this track, it is the oft-debated realities surrounding these sessions which make these musical achievements all the more impressive. As the legend goes, Art Pepper was not made aware of the actual recording session until the morning of the day that they occurred, and until he walked into the studio, he had never met any of the other three musicians. It is also said that the saxophone that he brought to the session was in a state of disrepair, and he was also battling a significant drug problem at the time. While much of this has been debated over the years, the reality that the four had never met has rarely been questioned, and this in itself makes the resulting music almost unfathomable. There is a chemistry between the quartet of players that is far beyond that of many groups that had played together for years, and this is a testament to the exceptional level of talent within each musician. Yet one can also see this reality as the result of the "theory" with which Art Pepper always played, as he made a point that music was more about passion and emotion than "notes on a page." Due to this, one can infer that there was a unique freedom and level of enjoyment during the recording session, and one can hear and understand how this yielded uniquely brilliant results in Art Pepper's most impressive musical moment; 1957's "Straight Life."