Rabbit Holes #8: Art Pepper Lives! Or, Long Live the CD!

Art Pepper Photo by Laurie Pepper

That title must have gotten your attention. Not the part about Art Pepper but the part about the CD. Nobody has anything good to say about the compact disc anymore (footnote 1). CD sales suck. Streaming and downloads rule the world. Vinyl (an album format that warps, scratches, and has to be flipped every 22 minutes) now outsells CDs.

But the CD still deserves a place in your heart. One reason: box sets. Many of them are worthy of coveting. For example, there is an amazing new project on the Omnivore label, Art Pepper's The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings. It contains eight hours and 20 minutes of music on seven CDs. Collections that large do not lend themselves to LPs.

Art Pepper was one of the most notorious junkies in the history of jazz. When he was young, he was an alto saxophone virtuoso. In 1951, he finished 16 votes behind Charlie Parker in the Downbeat Readers Poll. In his early 30s, he made classic albums like Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (1957) and Art Pepper + Eleven (1959). But by 1960, heroin had laid him waste. He was incarcerated for much of the next 15 years. He even made the prison big time: San Quentin.

Two events kept him from falling off the face of the earth. First, he entered Synanon, a drug rehabilitation program in Santa Monica, California. Second, he met Laurie Miller.

Synanon did not turn Pepper into a boy scout. But it altered his substance abuse patterns enough that he was able to function. Methadone maintenance, alcohol, and cocaine remained facts of his life. After they were married in 1974, Laurie Pepper managed Art's life and his career. She even co-wrote his critically praised autobiography, Straight Life, published in 1979. Since his death, she has managed his legacy. Laurie co-produced this new set (with Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore) and provided fascinating liner notes that could only come from someone who had been by Pepper's side, every day, for his final, wild ride.

The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings comes from three nights (August 13–15, 1981) at a large Los Angeles club. The place has faded into history, but it was an important stop on the West Coast jazz circuit between 1979 and 1983. The package for this set contains many vivid photographs (including gig shots) and memorabilia such as reproductions of the backs of the original tape boxes. It also contains an illuminating historical document: pages from a notebook in which Pepper logged his impressions when he first listened to the tapes of these three nights. (He could be a harsh critic. After hearing a somewhat ragged but scorching take of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," he wrote, "This isn't to be used until long after my death.")

By 1981, Pepper was no longer a virtuoso. His playing was sometimes rough around the edges. But his spontaneous melodic creativity was still stunning. He was still a unique improviser. He made you think and feel along with him. Case in point: "Everything Happens to Me," the classic ballad by Thomas Adair and Matt Dennis. It was one of Pepper's signature songs, partly because its title encapsulates his life but mostly because its structure set him up for wave after wave of lyric revelation. He played it all three nights. On the last night, in an epic 12-minute version, you can sense him hesitating over the story, marking time until inspiration arrives. It almost always does, and then beauty erupts from his saxophone, as if beyond his will. Other ballads—"But Beautiful" (played twice) and "What's New?" (played only once but played for keeps)—freeze you in your chair. Pepper could always play fast. The three versions of "Donna Lee" fly by in a blur. And he was a profound blues interpreter. The very last song he played at the Maiden Voyage was "Arthur's Blues," so low-down and dirty it made some people in the crowd cry out for mercy. (Pepper's notebook entry says, "My whole life went into this.")

The quartet at the Maiden Voyage had George Cables on piano, David Williams on bass, and Carl Burnett on drums. It was a working, touring band, and tight. Cables's lush solos on the ballads are consistently wonderful.

With 40-year-old live recordings collected into box sets, sound can be a problem. For example, Laurie Pepper, in her Unreleased Art series on her own Widow's Taste label, sometimes used soundboard tapes and surreptitious audience recordings. But the Maiden Voyage material was recorded professionally by engineers Baker Bigsby and Wally Buck. The sound is balanced, clear, and alive. The only challenge is that Pepper's affable, spacey stage banter is almost inaudible.

Four and a half hours of the Maiden Voyage material was previously issued in a monumental 16-CD box set, The Complete Galaxy Recordings, which came out in 1989 (and also on the Galaxy albums that set collected). But in this Omnivore set, 23 of the 42 tracks are new to the world. Laurie says that in August of 1981, "Art's health was bad. ... He lived on pastry and ice cream. He woke up every day surprised to be alive, and every tune he played, he felt might be his final word, his deathbed declaration." Pepper died at 56 on June 15, 1982, 10 months after his Maiden Voyage engagement. This box set is too diverse, too rich, too sprawling, too of its moment, to be considered a deathbed declaration. As he neared the end, Art Pepper played like he had lived: all in, on the edge, defying risk.

Footnote 1: But see Steven Wilson's comments on the CD in this month's music feature, which starts on p.106.