Monday, July 28, 2008

A Work of Art Worthy of Parker or Coltrane

While I figured I could open this by saying something snarky- "How many stupid puns can someone come up with out of Art Pepper's name," for example- I realized after hearing "Unreleased Art Vol. 3" that it was a moot point. Critics are having a field day with this one, and while I don't think I've seen anything as ridiculous as mine, I also don't think that most critics have the same adoration of Art Pepper that I do. Art Pepper, like Lee Konitz, is one of an extremely small handful of musicians who constantly changed his sound throughout his career in search of something new. Pepper's substance abuse problems are well documented all over the place, so I won't delve deeply but to say that at the time that "Unreleased Art Vol. 3" was recorded, Pepper had already spent years in prison, kicked his heroin habit, and replaced it with a massive cocaine habit. Pepper died only a year after this recording, which unquestionably adds some gravity to the proceedings.

That said "Unreleased Art Vol. 3," released on Laurie Pepper's Widow's Taste label, is one of the great recently released concert recordings, up there with "Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall" and the recent reissues of early 60s Mingus concerts. Pepper calls pianist Milcho Leviev, bassist Bob Magnussen and drummer Carl Burnett his best rhythm section ever, and after hearing "Unreleased Art Vol. 3" I can't disagree; keep in mind, Pepper played with Philly Jo, Red and Paul on at least one extremely well-known occasion. All three have brilliant moments throughout the record, but their work on "Ophelia" is particularly stunning. Constantly building tension by starting off slow and moving into more and more complicated ideas both harmonically and rhythmically, Leviev plays a stunning solo. Magnussen also builds his solo, and by the end shows off his own blistering technique. Burnett keeps the whole thing anchored with flare throughout, and at the end shows off his own ability.

The rhythm section is at its best when supporting Pepper, however. Pepper is brilliant here, as he is on virtually every recording of his entire career. The opposite of his incredibly erratic life, Pepper's discography is incredibly consistent. That said, though, there are two recordings that stand out as his undisputed classics: "Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section," the famous recording with Philly Joe, Red and Paul, and the "Village Vanguard" recordings of the late seventies. Of these two, "Unreleased Art Vol. 3" most resembles the "Village Vanguard" recordings, but without some of the rough edges. While "Village Vanguard" sounded like one man wrestling with his demons over a backdrop of some reliable standards, "Unreleased Art" sounds more like a man attempting to play everything that he has left. Pepper tears up a break-neck "Cherokee" as if it's his last, and "Goodbye" sounds as serious as its title. The rough edges can still be heard in glimpses, as Pepper screeches on "Ophelia," using extended techniques to imbue a certain urgency, but for the most part what's here is powerful straight-ahead jazz.

Unlike the other two editions of the "Unreleased Art" series, taken from Laurie Pepper's personal collection, the sound quality on "Unreleased Art Vol. 3" is impeccable. Every note from every member of the band is audible, and Magnussen's bass- an instrument generally hard to hear in live recordings- sparkles. Highly recommended.

Don't ask what I'll have next time- I'm living on the edge. That said, I do know what I'll have here the time after next: this weekend I'll be covering the Caramoor jazz festival in Katonah (Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy Heath's big band, Wynton Marsalis, Mulgrew Miller, and Michel Camillo will all be performing at various points) for the Scarsdale Inquirer, and I'll try and have reviews of all of those shows.

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