Hot Wax – Album Reviews: October 2019

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Art Pepper

Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings (Omnivore Recordings)

  • Art Pepper – clarinet, alto saxophone
  • George Cables – piano
  • Hank Jones – piano
  • Ron Carter – bass
  • Charlie Haden – bass
  • Al Foster – drums
  • Billy Higgins – drums

The music on this five-disc collection captures the sound of a man trying to reclaim his artistry, and in turn, his very reason for being. In 1979, the year these recording were made, Art Pepper was about five years into an extraordinary comeback, determinedly rebuilding his career and his life.

One of the great West Coast alto saxophonists of the 1940s and 50s, Pepper become mired in a drug-addled lifestyle that ultimately landed him in and out of prison for much of the 1960s. (Pepper’s celebrated, harrowing 1979 memoir, Straight Life maps out the tribulations of his rise-and-fall-and-rise in all its gory detail.) Yet no matter the vicissitudes, the man never called it quits musically; by the mid-70’s he was performing and recording again. The Artist House sides were cut for producer John Synder’s label, ultimately producing four albums from sessions that involved two distinct rhythm sections.

The New York aggregate comprised Ron Carter on bass, Al Foster on drums, and Hank Jones on piano; the Los Angeles quartet included Charlie Haden on bass, Billy Higgins on drums, and George Cables on piano. There are obvious differences: Haden’s idiosyncratic technique contrasts with Carter’s agility; Higgins has a lighter touch than Foster; and Cables breathes a modern air that the masterful Jones shies away from. Yet both supporting units give Pepper just what he needs to express himself with resolve and a pleasing sense of uninhibitedness.

By the 1970s Pepper’s sound and approach had dramatically changed from the familiar approach of his earlier landmark recordings; the fluid, comfortable, at times mellifluous, blowing that had endeared him to listeners was a thing of the past. He had absorbed Coltrane in the meantime, and if Pepper didn’t attempt to strictly emulate the iconic saxophonist, he certainly tried to bring a more exposed expressiveness to his own playing. Each note was now hard won, the visible attempt to make the music became as important as the music itself. Pepper’s playing was still eminently lyrical and coherent but unmasked emotion now trumped all demonstrations of technical skill and the too easy listener manipulation that comes with tonal beauty. There’s an attractive rawness to these performances that speaks of an artist finding his authentic instrumental voice.

Apart from a handful of mostly blues-based Pepper originals, the set–complete with numerous alternate takes and 19 unissued performances among its 56 tracks– is filled with well-worn standards and established bebop heads that would have fit securely among Pepper’s earlier work. Yet familiarity elicits passion from the saxophonist and his cohorts. (Among the anomalous highlights are a delightful Pepper and Carter duet on “Duo Blues”; and two takes of a trio romp on “In a Mellow Tone” with Haden and Higgins, and the leader on woody toned clarinet; and a single, lustrous performance of Pepper’s ballad “Diane.”)

Producer Synder’s ace in the hole may have been having Pepper record a number of unaccompanied ballads. Possibly a response to the contemporary avant garde players who were producing similar solo excursions, these naked performances find Pepper at his most personal. Listen to the multiple takes of “But Beautiful,” “You Go to My Head,” and “Lover Man” (the latter including a notable clarinet reading); here was a unique musician beckoning you into his own world, one filled equally with anguish and joy. (Steve Futterman)

Avishai Cohen/Yonathan Avishai

  • Playing The Room (ECM)
  • Avishai Cohen – trumpet
  • Yonathan Avishai – piano

There is a certain something about the jazz duet format – one can get to feel that one is eavesdropping on a conversation, or hearing unadorned (or less adorned, at any rate) musical give-and-take (or thrust-and-parry) as it happens. Avishai Cohen is a trumpeter from Israel, Yonathan Avishai is an Israeli pianist based in France – together they fashion a series of piano/trumpet duets as if it were a classy contender for posterity (and it is, really).

“Dee Dee” is a droll tune with a cheerfully zig-zagging theme, Avishai jauntily and sparely walking his keys down the street while Cohen playfully chases the ghosts of all tuneful trumpeters past – his playing could fit in an old MGM soundtrack, each gent swinging ‘round the other with feints of note-flurries and cheerful motifs. “Ralph’s New Blues” evokes more-than-slightly Willie Dixon’s blues standard “Spoonful” (the melodic hook), the blue notes practically sticking to Avishai’s fingers as he essays them, Cohen engaging in some jaunty lyrical lines as if he were rehearsing for a Mardi Gras parade, the two of them dovetailing into a perfect, slightly nostalgic conclusion. Stevie Wonder’s Duke Ellington tribute “Sir Duke” gets turned on its head somewhat with a beautifully idyllic piano introduction skirting the melody before getting familiar oh-so-sweetly, taking Wonder’s strutting celebration of Ellington’s music and making it into an intro to a cheery house in “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” Cohen evoking all the good peaceful ‘hood vibes into his muted trumpet. “Azalea” is a ballad wherein Cohen sounds as if he’s distilling all the well-dressed angst and sweet melancholia into one song before time runs short; Avishai’s playing luminously elegant, as if he were evoking Errol Garner, so to speak (and he gets close, at that). Avishai’s key-strokes reverberate with portent in the nocturnal air as if it were 10 minutes past the club’s closing time, Cohen waxes a curious mix of sweet nostalgia and regret-laden-but-necessary farewells – it fades, with some echo, like a dream or a fable.

Who’d’ve thunk it? ECM Records, primarily known for European and American exponents of cutting-edge jazz, classical (old and new), and folk music (and crystalline sonic quality, to boot) delivers a disc of old-school-like delights, albeit one free of any corny or retro-ish baggage. Two cats, leaning to the short-and-sweet (nine tracks!), groovin’ on shades of old masters’ opulent and emotion-laden styles without ever being obvious (or worse, corny) about it. (Mark Keresman)

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