Art Pepper Live at Ronnie Scott's
The Complete Art Pepper at Ronnie Scott's Club, London, June 1980, a 7-LP boxed set released by Pure Pleasure Records, is a total surprise and a sheer delight.
Art Pepper, who died in 1982 at the age of 56, was not only one of the great alto saxophonists of his era but a self-transformer to boot. In the early 1950s, he routinely ranked No. 2 in Downbeat polls (beat only by Charlie Parker), then vanished in the '60s (locked up in various prisons on drug charges), only to emerge in the mid-'70s with a totally different sound.
On his early albums, the best of which were recorded by Contemporary in the late '50s, he played with amazing speed and a preternaturally smooth tone. In the later era, influenced by Coltrane and perhaps the course of his own life, he blew with a rougher, more urgent tone, stressing passion over pyrotechnics, yet still lyrical, even beautiful, especially with ballads, which he confronted as if his life depended on the truth of each phrase, of every note.
In the last six years of his life, he toured almost non-stop with a working band and recorded more than 40 albums. A few years ago, his widow, Laurie Pepper, who'd managed his comeback (and co-authored his searing memoir, Straight Life), started putting out previously unreleased live sessions on her own label, Widow's Taste.
Most recently still, she unearthed the complete master tapes of four sets that Pepper and his quartet played over two nights in 1980 at the London jazz club Ronnie Scott's, recorded by the long-defunct label Mole Jazz. Pieces of these sessionseight out of 25 songswere put out on two albums, Blues for the Fisherman and True Blues, with his pianist, Milcho Leviev, identified as the leader (because Pepper was under exclusive contract with Galaxy). They went out of print quickly. (I bought the second from a jazz dealer at the time; I've never seen the first, then or since.)
Now we have the whole thing, the best of which, it turns out, weren't on the original records. This is a magnificent collection, a bit uneven (I've never found Pepper's covers of be-bop standards very interesting) but less so than you might expect of so many hours of continuous live music.
And (here comes the payoff) the soundlaid down live to two tracks with no compression, noise-reduction, or equalizationis stunning, way better than the original LPs (perhaps because the new vinyl is so much thicker and purer). Carl Burnett's drums have never sounded so detailed and dynamic on any record, nor have Tony Dumas' bass pluckings sounded so fast or so warmly woody. Leviev's piano was a bit distantly miked, but it too sounds very natural. And Pepper's horn is right up front, in 3D, the nuances of his intonation and rhythm caught in full.
If you want to explore single-disc albums first, my favorites from his late era (and I prefer the late to the early) are Today, Landscape, So in Love, and the first two volumes of Laurie Pepper's concert excavations, Unreleased Art. Great music, good sound, at least for the studio albums.
But overall, the Pure Pleasure boxed set delivers at least very good music and great sound. They're the best-sounding late-era Art Pepper albums ever made. Available from Elusive Disc and Acoustic Sounds.