A regular reader, one Dave Gillespie, presented me with a common complaint. He said that much as he enjoyed listening to jazz, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trying to crack a code, that there was a language being spoken in some of the music to which he was not privy. And let’s be honest, he’s right. Any band playing music with an element of improvisation will need its own system of cues and signals, and the musicians can be expected to develop a certain telepathy. It should come as no surprise, then, to hear them seasoning their performance with the odd personal touch. I suspect Dave’s curiosity has been aroused by the blurred line between communication and indulgence, especially if he’s been listening to jazz rock. Really, the only way to figure out if they’re talking to you or to themselves is to keep listening – the line will move back and forth while you’re at it, and it will occasionally seem a lot less blurred, but there are no fast rules and life is short. So if a critic may eulogise, say, a particular Miles Davis solo, don’t doubt yourself if it makes you think of icicles on a window frame. What the hell, he’ll play another solo soon enough and in the meantime the saxophone player might change your life with half a dozen notes!
Still, Dave’s misgivings took me back to my late teens, to wondering why I was becoming so excited by music that sounded like a couple of Spanish waiters having a fight in a busy kitchen. Charlie Parker’s records had obvious charms, their high-speed anxiety recalling the headlong excitement of my beloved punk rock records, but Art Pepper’s “Smack Up” had me entirely beguiled, as if it was taking the back off jazz’s watch to show me how all the parts worked. And his life story couldn’t help but entrance somebody reared on the squalid iconography of rock ‘n’ roll: Pepper spent his entire professional life in the thrall of narcotics, and his career was devastated by the attendant lifestyle. Crimes of every description supported his habit, from armed robbery and burglary down to the theft of a cement mixer, and the 1950s and 60s, which should have been his glory days, were marked by frequent prison sentences and a lengthy (if unconvincing) spell in rehab. He affords himself little mercy in his autobiography, Straight Life, which remains one of the most harrowing tales of the much-mythologised “jazz life”. He re-surfaced in the 1970s, his demons tamed if not entirely beaten, and he became quite the star, with a steady recording schedule and a hectic touring diary that lasted until his death in 1982. The series of albums he made for the L.A.-based Contemporary Records between 1956 and 1960, however, are the enduring documents of a truly great musician, an alto player worthy of Charlie Parker’s crown. Whatever his state of health, Art remained on the money every time he entered a studio, blessing even the most ill-starred session with his fleet-footed improvisation and russet lyricism. What better description of his playing than that offered by a fellow musician: “it sounds like a man crying – it just tears you up.”
And so to Smack Up. Recorded on the 24th and 25th October, 1960, the album sees a further advance on the already high emotional charge of Pepper’s playing style: the repetition and distending of particular phrases, the finely-judged tensions released by flurries of notes, like he’s finally found the words to say what was bothering him. All five members of the band swing along almost telepathically, Jack Sheldon’s poised trumpet an ideal foil for Pepper’s wounded bluster on an album consisting entirely of compositions written by saxophonists.
Art Pepper – alto sax
Jack Sheldon – trumpet
Pete Jolly – piano
Jimmy Bond – bass
Frank Butler – drums
Smack Up (Harold Land) – a brisk hard bop number, bounced along by Jimmy Bond’s springy bass playing, which moves swiftly into a Pepper solo that can’t wait to get out of the traps. All of the qualities of his style are evident, as the worrying away at a phrase at the beginning gives way, on cue from a couple of piano chords, to more flowing invention. Following brief trumpet and piano solos (note how, playing behind the piano, Butler drops the cymbal fizz and off-beat accents that stoked up the horn solos), Pepper and Sheldon trade fours, displaying their distinctly different approaches.
Las Cuevas de Mario (Art Pepper) – dedicated to and named after one of Pepper’s friends. OK, one of his dealers. The band handles the piece’s intriguing time signature with such ease that it doesn’t immediately sink in that it’s in a then-obscure 5/4. Its crab-like gait is propelled pretty much by Bond’s bass, with Butler’s drums adding percussive colour while Pepper floats effortlessly around the rhythm. Sheldon’s solo starts at a point where understated becomes merely undercooked, however, and despite waking up a few bars later, he still sounds a little bemused.
A Bit of Basie (Buddy Collette) – a breathlessly propulsive piece driven by Butler’s implacable drums and by Pepper’s urgent soloing, rich with his trademark note repetitions and bending, stretching phrases. Jolly’s riffing solo echoes Basie’s own economic piano style, building great tension by means often as simple as nagging away at one single high note, and the piece bows out with Pepper and Butler swapping fours to thrillingly exciting effect.
How Can You Lose (Benny Carter) – an amiable, swinging stroll which originally appeared on Carter’s “Jazz Giant” album. The blues-drenched chord changes elicit a fairly straightforward but friendly solo from Sheldon, who is clearly enjoying his most comfortable moment.
Maybe Next Year (Duane Tatro) – even at this slow tempo, Pepper’s wistful playing is keenly communicative – note how the piano player stands aside after just eight solo bars – and every note he plays seems to have been carefully picked from the stave at some perfect moment of emotional ripeness. The rest of the band keep a low profile on this one, leaving us free to admire in stark relief Art’s yearning and vibrato-rich performance. Not one for the cynics!
Tears Inside (Ornette Coleman) – by the time this album was recorded, Ornette Coleman had a fearsome reputation as a doyen of the avant garde, thanks to his piano-less quartet and harmonically free melodic conception. There’s not much to be scared of here, however. Pepper handles the tricksy theme as though it was a nursery rhyme, and it comes as some surprise to hear Sheldon shadowing him with such ease. It doesn’t last; the performance resolves itself into a fairly straightforward twelve-bar pattern following the theme, and Sheldon, who enjoyed a parallel career as a stand-up comedian, takes a solo that initially suggests he’d forgotten which job he was on. Following solos from the rest of the band, Pepper and Sheldon lock horns most effectively, meshing wonderfully over a return to the theme to end the album on a high.
A follow-up album, the appropriately-titled “Intensity,” was recorded just a month later – shortly after recording “Smack Up,” Pepper was arrested for drug possession, and his benign producer at Contemporary, Lester Koenig, gave him the date to help towards the cost of his bail. He was imprisoned for three years, Koenig patiently shelving the album until his release, and that was pretty much it for Art Pepper in the 60s. Let us be thankful for the many fine albums he made while his reckless lifestyle wasn’t getting the better of him!