28. Ugly beauty

Patricia, Art Pepper. From Art Pepper: Today, 1978

When this album came my way I’d never heard of Art Pepper. A beginning jazz listener in the 1970s could explore widely without coming across him. But there was something about the image on the sleeve that intrigued – the tattooed arms cradling the alto sax; the terrible haircut; the thousand yard stare that belied the almost smile he managed for the confrontation with the lens.

The mugshot says “back story”, and so it proved. An abusive childhood; a young man of remarkable physical beauty and astounding talent; a decades long heroin addiction. Unlike fellow west Coast tragedian Chet Baker, who mostly escaped the authorities, and kept gigging (and even, God help us, singing), Pepper spent much of the 1960s in prison. Then, finally trading heroin for methadone, he tried to re-establish some kind of career. Pretty hard, for a man who first led an album titled “The Return of Art Pepper” in 1956, after an earlier spell in jail.

He had hardly any known fan base, a poor or non-existent rep with promoters, no money to pay decent sidemen, a jazz recession looming, and one of the thinnest skins any human ever wore. It seems a small miracle he ever performed or recorded again, but as everyone now knows he had a brilliant late career, which the junkie made good storyline helped, in the end.

But what mainly helped, along with his partnership with his wife, manager and soulmate Laurie, was that he was good. Having successfully avoided being overwhelmed by Charlie Parker as a young player, he assimilated what he could use from Coltrane in the 1970s. That, and the challenges of prison life, seemed to deepen his technique and his emotional range.

There’s a whole clutch of recordings that let us remember that, many made live – the Village Vanguard sequence with George Mraz and Elvin Jones stands out – but this studio session, where I came in, grabbed me and has never let go.

The band were hot. Pianist Stanley Cowell (see last week’s track), master bassist Cecil McBee and Roy Haynes on drums had cut a trio recording a couple of days before, then stayed on for the session with Art. You can tell it’s the same set-up from McBee’s unusual, growling bass sound, which carries over from the superb session the pianist led.

He really settled in with these players. He was known to take against drummers, and while both Cowell and McBee made other dates with Pepper he didn’t record with Haynes again. The man was such a master accompanist it’s hard to imagine a problem, though. He imparts a characteristic bustling urgency to the up-tempo numbers, like the rudimentary riff that is Chris’s Blues, but Pepper, a man who knew he was short of time, usually thrived on bustling urgency.

And on this track, a ballad the saxophonist wrote as a love letter to his estranged daughter, Haynes is perfect, doing almost nothing but just enough. Cowell – who dredged up the decades old tune, Laurie tells us, when Pepper had forgotten it – contributes a fine solo after Pepper’s long, bitter-sweet musing on the theme, then the saxophonist returns for an impassioned coda, when beauty turns into frantic, shrieking ugliness for a few moments of high emotional tension, before calm returns, just, before the ending.

The tune became a staple of Pepper’s performances thereafter, generally riding the same emotional roller-coaster, but this first (re)-encounter captures a special moment. It’s the most memorable thing on the record. It sent me back to the earlier Contemporary recordings, made me seek out the records Pepper made after this one, up until his death in 1982, and head eagerly for Ronnie Scott’s to catch him live on one of his late visits to London. He did not disappoint.

Why the No 28? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify (with a different version of this tune this week).

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