Saxophonist Pepper certainly deserves a place in any good jazz collection. One of the few altoists to find his own unique voice in the wake of Charlie Parker's influence (Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz were about the only other members of that select group), Pepper made several magnificent recordings and several of them are represented in this collection.
If his performances were capable of reaching great heights of improvisation, his personal life, recorded in his autobiography Straight Life (one of the most depressing books you are ever likely to read) just about plumbed the depths of human degradation. As a result of drug addiction, Pepper spent several years in jail during the 1960s, dividing his recording career into two distinct periods. His earlier recordings are characterized by a light tone and a fluent inventiveness that was virtually unmatched. After his post-jail comeback his style hardened, reflecting a Coltrane influence, with a darker tone and greater emotional intensity, but more fragmented, jagged phrasing. Many critics have praised this period of Pepper's output but I have always treasured his earlier work. The majority of these selections are from that period.
The opening selection immediately demonstrates the weakness of the "Best Of..." concept; Smack Up, from the album of the same name, would not have been one of my choices for inclusion here. It is good playing by anyone's standards, but not among Pepper's best. This becomes apparent by contrast with the following selections. Tin Tin Deo and You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To are from Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section, while Move and Bernie's Tune are from Art Pepper + Eleven, and these are among the finest albums Pepper made, deserving of a place in any modern jazz collection. The first, from 1957, resulted from a hastily-arranged meeting with the Miles Davis rhythm section of the period--Red Garland, Paul Chambers and ‘Philly' Joe Jones. The lack of preparation seems to have resulted in a burst of spontaneous creativity from Pepper, who plays at a high level throughout. The second was much more highly organized, pitting Pepper as soloist against an eleven piece band consisting of a who's who of west coast musicians, beautifully executing Marty Paich's arrangements of classic compositions of Monk, Parker, Gillespie, et. al. This material and the stirring performance of the ensemble, spurred on by Mel Lewis' super-crisp drumming, bring out some of Pepper's finest playing on both alto and tenor (as well as one clarinet outing not represented here.)
Subsequent Art Pepper albums from the late 50s and early 60s on the whole maintain a high level of performance. These include Intensity, represented here by Too Close For Comfort and I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me, and Gettin' Together with Miles' 1960 rhythm section--Wynton Kelly, Chambers and Jimmy Cobb--from which we hear Softly As In A Morning's Sunrise and the title track. Gettin' Together is a reasonable example of Pepper's Lester Young influenced tenor work on a loose blues framework. It is by no means a classic, however. When we cut to 1978 and Mambo Koyama, we find the later Art Pepper, harder, more fragmented, supposedly more soulful. Another two years and the 1980 session Winter Moon features Pepper with a string orchestra for The Prisoner and Our Song. This is where I part company with the prevailing wisdom. Where many critics find poetry and passion, I hear an artist struggling with a painful loss of artistry. Pepper's squawks and cries are far less satisfying than his earlier, seemingly effortless flow of musical, melodic creativity. One might argue that Pepper is able to find a balance between emotion and structure--between Dionysius and Apollo--for fleeting moments in his later career. Perhaps Over The Rainbow is one of those moments. These are esthetic judgements that readers will have to make for themselves.
So the question remains. Is this the "Best Of . . . " Art Pepper? Well, if you are interested in chronicling Pepper's artistic odyssey, even if it includes a downward spiral, then this collection tells the story reasonably well. If you would rather simply hear him at the peak of his inventive powers, go out and buy Art Pepper + Eleven. I still play it and enjoy it on a regular basis.