REVIEW: – 5 CD Box collection — Art Pepper Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings.


“…but it’s always a battle…”

In 1979 in a moment of clarity alto sax legend Art Pepper said those words about performing jazz. On Sept 23, Omnivore’s 32 remastered John Snyder-produced classics in a 5-CD box arrives. Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings with Laurie Pepper’s recollections + 19 unreleased performances.

The promise kept: having signed to Fantasy Records, Art was sure the contract allowed him 1 LP for his friend John Snyder’s Artists House. Art gave John four.

Art Pepper — a pivotal alto saxophonist wrote a riveting bio “Straight Life,” (1979). An unvarnished account of his struggles, musical brilliance, & creative inventiveness when he held an alto in his hands.

For the uninitiated, jazz buffs believe Art to be the best alto sax in the post-Charlie Parker era. A career that crossed paths with Stan Kenton, Miles Davis, Buddy Rich, & Chet Baker. Until drugs hitched a ride.  

What’s amazing is how younger jazz session players weren’t aware of Pepper’s notoriety. The ’79 NY session here was tense & the players — unfamiliar with the Coltrane influenced Pepper. (Art lost productive years under the influence, incarcerated, or in rehabilitation. Live shows were few & studio work, sporadic). But…

The stressful NY atmosphere did net results. The talent hired were somewhat dismissive. They were elitist-black-NY jazz musicians with attitude who weren’t accustomed to a West Coast “white cat” alto sax player. Al Foster (drums, was gracious), Ron Carter (bass), a chilly Hank Jones (piano), & Al Foster (drums). Maybe they were uninspired, misguided or wrongheaded.

CD #1 – 8 tracks – So in Love — the NY session tenseness had excitement not originally noticeable. Despite that “Yesterdays,” initially not to Art or wife Laurie’s liking was outside Art’s musical comfort zone. The groove wasn’t there, the players for the recording weren’t a good fit for Art personally. The marriage didn’t work despite the talent.

However, Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser,” (#3) with its deep bass solo, tasty piano lick & clean drums over Art’s sax was indeed charged. The pro musicians tried. But it took time to like. Art’s “Blues for Blanchie” & “Diane,” with his warm tones & fluid piano was cohesive. Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” (with laid-back cordial piano & sax was cherries in brandy).

The bonus: “Yesterdays,” (#2) had a well-paced moodier beat, tight piano balanced in the honey alto of Art Pepper. “Landscape” & the previously unissued “Straight, No Chaser” (#4) was strong & it detonated. Whiskey with no water. Indeed.   

Some LA tunes laid down were punchier with NY’s George “The Monsignor” Cables (piano in LA), congenial Charlie Haden (bass) & Billy Higgins (drums). It took 2-days & netted many tracks. Art’s concentration & technique – acute. In ‘76 Radio Free Jazz’s Doug Ramsey said of Art: “He is a virtuoso but not an exhibitionist.”  

The NY & LA musicians were accomplished but in NY the music required a groove. It needed to be conveyed. Sometimes proficiency, technicality even professionalism — aren’t enough.

But Art, like Elvis Presley, needed to be artistically challenged. To battle, be intimidated & their best came from that. You hear it in the vigor of late 60’s Elvis’ voice & in Art’s alto here. If challenges compelled these men – these men were dangerous. 

Dangerous? Art’s sax prowess was such that aficionados of legendary players Charlie Parker & John Coltrane were oblivious. But, at 26 in 1952, Art Pepper placed 2nd to Parker in the DownBeat jazz poll – by a mere 16 votes.

At San Francisco’s Black Hawk alto legend Sonny Stitt, a formidable opponent, obnoxiously approached Art to jam. Asked, “can I blow?” Art said sure. The difficult “Cherokee” had a bridge & many chord changes. Stitt blew first, for about an hour. Played just about everything God created. Was awarded vigorous audience approval. Stitt put it to Art.

On this night Art a little drunk, strung out, knew it was put up or shut up. At stake, pride & reputation. Audience witnesses said Art began to play beyond his talent. Art had said, “you play like who you are.”

What emerged was completely contrary to Stitt. Art played himself. The audience was stunned. At the conclusion, a sweat-drenched Art looked at Stitt & nodded. The respectful Stitt acknowledged Art with “all right…” & left the stage. Leaving the stage was a polite jazz surrender. That was it. Art Pepper that night with Stitt was indeed the best alto sax player. To best Sonny Stitt? Incredible. 

At the end of a Euro concert in the ’80s Art got the loudest ovation of all name jazz acts. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard said “…he’s the greatest alto saxophone player in the world…”

CD #2 – 11 tracks – Artworks – LA musicians helmed this session & it opens with an unaccompanied alto solo: “Body & Soul” – a warm 50’s Bohemian feel. With eyes closed the hipster ghost of Jack Kerouac bops in the front row. Then, deep bass, Art’s clarinet plays (impressive too) & dominates on the Parker-Gillespie “Anthropology,” (takes 1 & 2). It spills dynamically cool. Not a flaw. 

Art’s melodic alto is effective with expressive piano on the bossa-nova driven classic “Desafinado.” In full-toned style, Art blows from a subterranean well of clear notes made all the more delightful by his natural talent. Fast tempos shimmy from “Donna Lee.” Tossed off with ease & clarity with sensitive momentum, power & skill. That alone dismisses mere showboating.

In the unaccompanied “You Go to My Head,” Art exemplifies a man with a horn…alone with his alto – an extension of his soul on a rooftop, by chimney pots at dusk who expresses himself to the heavens. Brilliant stuff Mr. Pepper.

CD #3 – 10 Tracks – New York Album – The next 3 CDs were produced by John Snyder & Laurie Pepper – NY musicians return & despite initial issues, these tunes have musical breadth. “A Night in Tunisia,” (#2) has lots of torque. Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man,” is rendered with an alto, later played on the clarinet. A Beat Generation cat on the prowl bass line opens with style & substance on “Duo Blues.” Followed by, “Johnny’s Blues,” which provides a nice deep tone, studio dialogue & we eavesdrop.  

CD #4 – 10 tracks – Stardust – CA sessions: an alternate “My Friend John,” recorded hotter than in NY has an exuberant piano solo (George) over a deep bass walk (Haden) & superb Pepper alto. A tight fluent solo sweetens “Tin Tin Deo,” & a full band (alt-A) “Stardust,” – is remarkable. “In a Mellow Tone,” displays the contrast between upright bass & Art’s emotive clarinet. Bonus tracks from NY – 5 & 6 begin with “Art’s Sweet Blues” & it captures the clarinet bellow from NY’s Electric Lady Studios.  

CD #5 – 11 tracks – Sessions – A stack for purists. Many LA sessions are pristine alternate takes, unissued & false starts. Despite Pepper’s struggle with drugs, no music or performance ever suffered distractions.

Worth hunting for, in 1976 Pepper had a sax solo on folk-singer Melanie Safka’s “I’m So Blue.” (Photograph LP)

“I was playing like myself again.”  Art Pepper (Sept. 1, 1925 – June 15, 1982)

Compilation produced by Laurie Pepper & Cheryl Pawelski. Available here:

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