Mingus & Pepper

I have a story in the Arts & Leisure section of today’s New York Sunday Times about Charles Mingus and Art Pepper—specifically about the happy accident that these two famously self-absorbed jazz legends married women who became equally absorbed in preserving their legacies.

The article is pegged to three new CDs of previously unreleased concerts—Mingus at Cornell in 1964, Pepper at Abashiri, Japan, in ’81, and at the Kool Jazz Festival in D.C. (the last performance of his life) in ’82. My article is more a profile of their flame-keeping widows—Sue Mingus and Laurie Pepper—than a review of their music. So, here’s a short guide to the latter.

Mingus (who died in 1979 of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 56) was not only a ferocious and graceful bass player, but also a demanding and brilliant composer—Ellington with a slight chemical imbalance. Cornell 1964 (Blue Note) features his most adventurous sextet—including Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Coles, and Dannie Richmond—playing one of their most rousing, riveting sets: brand new tunes at the time that would soon become Mingus classics, explored, excavated, sifted and shifted with a tight but merry abandon.

If you’re just getting into Mingus, start with his 1957 Tijuana Moods (originally on RCA, though Classic Records, the L.A.-based audiophile company, reissued it on great-sounding 180 gram vinyl, and Sony recently put out a well-mastered CD with bonus tracks) or any of his Atlantic albums (Pithecanthropus Erectus, Blues and Roots, Tonight at Noon, or the complete box-set); but the Cornell concert ranks in the echelon just below.

Art Pepper (who died in 1982, also at 56, of drug-related ailments) was less an innovator than a melodic expressionist. It’s dangerous to confuse art with autobiography, but there was no separating Pepper’s music from his life. He blew the alto saxophone as if each note unveiled his dreams and sorrows. Familiar standards, like “Body and Soul” or “Over the Rainbow,” became hypnotic reveries, revelations.

The new albums—Volumes 1 and 2 of a series called Unreleased Art (on Laurie Pepper’s own label, Widow’s Taste)—are terrific. But here’s the thing: I don’t think there are any bad Art Pepper albums. There are, it should be noted, two Art Peppers: the Pepper of the 1950s and early ‘60s, who blew with a smooth tone and a fluent cadence; and the Pepper who returned in 1977 after a 15-year absence (much of it spent in prison and rehab) with a harsher tone and a choppier cadence, shaped in part by Coltrane, in part by a harsh life. (For more on the latter, read his autobiography, co-written with Laurie, Straight Life).

Early Pepper is best heard on many albums released by Contemporary Records (and reissued, on excellent vinyl and SACD, by Acoustic Sounds, the audiophile mail-order house in Salina, Ks.): Intensity, Smack Up, Plus 11, and Meets the Rhythm Section. But I prefer the hair-raisingly intimate late Pepper, especially Today (whose opening tune, “Patricia,” is one of the loveliest ballads on disc), Going Home (heartbreaking duets on clarinet with pianist George Cables), the Manhattan sessions on Artists House (So in Love and The New York Album, also reissued by Acoustic Sounds)…I could go on. The two Widow’s Taste CDs are as good a start as any. But be forewarned: there’s no end.

Tony T.'s picture

How could you forget to mention "Mingus Ah Um" which was released in 1959 and arguably his greatest recording! Also, do check out drummer Paul Motian's cover of "Erectus" on his 2006 "Garden Of Eden" cd on ECM.

CrocodileChuck's picture

Agree 100% with your comments on Mr Pepper. Check out the Mosaic Select three disc box-for my money, the best Art out there (and, about the best release in this series). Get to it!CrocodileChuck