John Snyder and Laurie Pepper produced SO IN LOVE and NEW YORK ALBUM in 1979. The pieces comprising these albums, as well as ARTWORKS, emerged from two Art Pepper sessions, one in New York with Ron Carter, Hank Jones and Al Foster, and the other in Burbank, California with George Cables, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. These albums, currently re-released separately as 24k gold limited editions, can easily be thought of as simply as a two CD set.
1979 was near the end of Pepper’s tragic and complicated life and career as a tormented genius, master musician, ex-convict and junkie. The release of these albums coincided with the publication of his autobiography, Straight Life. It describes the jagged edge life of playing music and shooting heroin which landed him to spend much of his life imprisoned within the bare walls of places like San Quentin. His story is neither pleasant nor admirable. He does not speak much about his fellow musicians or his music, as compared to Miles Davis’ autobiography. Maybe it’s obvious, but his music is the one constant element in his life, even when he hocks his horn for smack. And maybe that’s why he neglects to speak much about it. His brutally honest stories are spun mostly about his relationships with women--his mother, his grandmother, his stepmother, three wives, and various liaisons and his time without women, incarcerated.
It is revealing that he included the gentle and gorgeous ‘Diane’ on the SO IN LOVE album. He wrote ‘Diane’ in the late 1950s and, at first blush, one would assume that the song was for and about his second wife. However, Pepper recalled in his autobiography that it was based on "dream I had of somebody I would have liked to have had, and I called it ‘Diane’ figuring it would make her happy, and it did. The tune was way too beautiful for her, but what was a name?"
A Cole Porter composition, ‘So in Love’ (from that album) is treated not as a gentle, slow love song. John Coltrane heavily influences the style and depth of Pepper’s playing. As a result, the piece’s rhythm is pouncing and his tone harsh suggesting something less than warm and cuddly but again what’s in a name?
The second verse of ‘Lover Man’ (on NEW YORK ALBUM) goes like this: "The night is so cold, and I’m so all alone. I give my soul just to call you my own. Got a moon above me, but no one to love me.... ." Although the lyrics are not sung, Pepper plays without accompaniment this plaintive sentiment. The once graceful and sorrowful melody sung by Sarah Vaughn, for example, is transformed into stark and stuttering catharsis of regret and loss. He sounds deeply alone.
Down Beat interviewed Pepper in 1975 and he revealed that "you suffer so much, and you get so close to yourself, that when you go to play you can reach down and really find things. It’s like you’re just pouring your life and your soul out when you’re playing. I found that every time I went to jail, I came out and I was a little more in tune. I had more depth, more soul." This seems characterize ‘Duo Blues’ (on NEW YORK ALBUM) quite well. It’s a slow blues walk with Ron Carter providing strong support to Pepper’s dark wanderings.
Not all the tunes are down and out. Although Pepper pays tribute to his wife on other albums during this period, "My Friend John’ (on NEW YORK ALBUM) is a bright appreciation to his producer, John Snyder. In the liner notes, Laurie Pepper writes: "This was a band just like Mile’s bands Art felt compelled to impress. So he threw one of his newest and most difficult charts at them, ‘My Friend John,’ and roared through that and everything else with spirit and vigor."
These CD re-releases show Art Pepper in superlative form and should serve as a basis to reevaluate his late masterpieces of the 1970s.