Art Pepper at 50 was emerging from a decade and a half of prison and rehab. By then the damage was done and he would live only seven more years. But if the live performance on RENASCENCE is any indication, those years must have been filled with satisfying music.
On this night in 1975, Pepper and his sidemen get plenty of what jazz musicians crave: time to think, the freedom to play what you want, and an audience to love you for it. The band is solid but Pepper’s creativity is what holds your interest. He plays bebop with the frank mastery of one whose musical identity was formed when bop was the currency of the day. This is 1975, though, post-Coltrane, Miles, Ornette - and Pepper is still rummaging around bebop’s toy chest, examining its corners, looking for hidden compartments. It proves a worthwhile search especially on "Good Bait," the album’s standout track. Pepper shows there’s plenty of fun still to be had with the language of his youth. Fifteen years off the scene have an effect, though, and you may wince at the bebop-boogaloo, "What Laurie Likes," unless you happen to be nostalgic for surfing movies.
Pepper shows his real substance on the ballad, "Here’s that Rainy Day." His sound is hard, his intonation quirky, as if he has more important things to tend to, but he is pensive and searching, lyrical and biting - a man who has known rainy days. It’s here where the blunt facts of Art Pepper’s life seem to translate most directly into art. It was a life full of struggle, but there must have been joy in being Art Pepper on nights like this. Here’s hoping.