Art Pepper’s Comeback


Saxophonist Art Pepper (right) recorded with bassist Charlie Haden during 1979 sessions in Los Angeles. The material has been anthologized on Promise Kept: The Complete Artists House Recordings, a five-disc set.

(Photo: Laurie Pepper)

In 1977 alto saxophonist Art Pepper told New York Times critic John S. Wilson, “In a very short time I’ll be like Trane. There was Pres, then Bird and then Trane. And then there’s going to be Pepper. I’ve felt that way all my life.”

Lawyer, record producer and ardent Pepper fan John Snyder—then the head of the A&M jazz imprint Horizon Records—did his best to help the saxophonist achieve that goal, booking the weekend stint at the Village Vanguard that preceded the Times article. The gigs were part of an impressive comeback, following years of inactivity caused by drug abuse and incarceration.

“Our gratitude to John was enormous, because it was John who put Art on the road and hired PR people,” said the saxophonist’s widow, Laurie Pepper.

The Vanguard engagement was the saxophonist’s first-ever performance in New York, nearly three decades after he first appeared on the Los Angeles scene. Snyder suggested recording the Vanguard shows, releasing them to great acclaim on Contemporary Records, the saxophonist’s longtime label run by Les Koenig.

Pepper and Snyder agreed that they would make a studio recording, eventually. A few months after the Vanguard dates that summer, Koenig died and Pepper signed a new deal with Fantasy, with the caveat that he was to make a record for Artists House, a new imprint Snyder launched after leaving Horizon.

Pepper never attained the influence he prophesied, but he did make good on his word to Snyder. In 1979, the producer put together all-star bands in New York and Los Angeles for sessions that would yield four albums worth of material. The first, So In Love, was issued on Artists House in 1980, while the Fantasy-owned Galaxy and the Japanese imprint Victor released the other three after Pepper’s death in 1982. Apart from appearing in the out-of-print 1989 box set The Complete Galaxy Recordings, the Snyder sessions long have been unavailable, but thanks to the efforts of Laurie Pepper—who made most of them available digitally through the Bandcamp page of her Widow’s Taste label in 2016—they were recently collected in a five-CD set, Promise Kept: The Complete Artists House Recordings (Omnivore), which features 15 previously unissued takes.

While the music throughout the set generally is superb, both Laurie and Snyder have reservations. In her liner notes, she accuses some musicians of disrespecting the saxophonist and phoning in some of the performances. She relates an anecdote about bassist Ron Carter reading a newspaper during a session after Pepper had requested him to lie out during an a cappella introduction for one tune. Still, the rest of the group—pianist Hank Jones and drummer Al Foster—play with exquisite grace and depth.

“The record we made for Artists House isn’t that good in my opinion,” said Snyder, now a professor at Loyola University–New Orleans. “I picked the wrong repertoire. The world did not need another ‘Straight No Chaser.’” Indeed, with the exception of a few Pepper originals, including his timeless ballad “Diane,” everything cut was a standard. On the other hand, Snyder had the nifty idea of recording six remarkable solo performances by Pepper, which prove revelatory.

“I thought Art’s sense of melody and storytelling through sound matched up perfectly with the idea of the solo voice. It was my way of framing an exquisite human ability at which Art Pepper had a particular genius,” Snyder said. “He was like a Delta blues dobro player—he could create melody, harmony and motion at the same time, which, coincidentally, just so happens to be the DNA of Ornette [Coleman]’s ‘Harmolodics.’” DB

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