Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section

Art Pepper

album cover

A Paragon of Cool Gets Hot

This date began as a kind of rescue mission. In January 1957, Lester Koenig, president of the small Contemporary label, hired Miles Davis's rhythm section to lure alto player Art Pepper, who was then struggling with heroin addiction and hadn't played in weeks, out of a self-imposed exile. The rhythm section—pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones—was coming off a feverish burst of work, having just finished recording four albums (Relaxin', Steamin', Workin', Cookin') to fulfill Davis's contract with Prestige.

According to the liner notes, Koenig deliberately surprised Pepper (1925–1982), telling him about the session only hours in advance to avoid panicking the fragile musician. Pepper's horn was in disrepair. The rhythm section had been out late the night before. Despite seemingly long odds, the session clicked—the combination of this steady-simmering band and Pepper, a master of tart and measured phrasing, made for low-key jazz magic.

Pepper is clearly inspired by his all-star sidemen—he plays with an uncharacteristic abandon, alternating between boppish runs and slippery, pitch-bending swerves. Garland counters the alto player's furtive lines with compact chordal rejoinders that are the jazz equivalent of the skeptical raised eyebrow. And Jones, who had no peer at this type of businesslike swing, guides the session with a feathery wrist, using just a crisp ride-cymbal pattern to keep all hands focused on the beat. History regards this as the date that got Pepper back on track, and while that's true, it overlooks the main reason why: This vibrant, steady, uncluttered backing could make any decent soloist shine.

Genre: Jazz
Released: 1957, Contemporary
Key Tracks: "Straight Life," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "Star Eyes," "Birk's Works"
Catalog Choice: Saturday Night at the Village Vanguard
Next Stop: Miles Davis: Steamin'
After That: Paul Desmond: Easy Living

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#1 from John Adcock, Ashtead, United Kingdom - 11/11/2009 8:30

This Art Pepper recording tends to get singled out for lists like this, and, although it’s good, Pepper has sounded better.  What intrigues me is that some of his later stuff - the albums he cut in the last stages of his life - very rarely get a mention, and yet they contain some of the best jazz he ever created.  Check out the dates from Live at the Village Vanguard in 1977, or the huge, wonderful Complete Galaxay Recordings for his last gasp, wonderful music.  The guy was - is - better than Charlie Parker in my view - but he doesn’t get the recognition, beyond “Meets The Rhythm Section”.  Frustrating!

#2 from Tom Moon - 11/14/2009 3:34

John…thanks for your note!

I like some of the later Galaxy stuff, and also the Vanguard sessions you mentioned. and on the Vanguard date, he does play “more” alto than on Meets the Rhythm Section. still, for me, it’s that Rhythm Section that makes it. they are kicking him into another gear in terms of feel and pure swing, and they play together so well it feels as though they’re constantly throwing him challenges. it’s been said that some of Pepper’s regular accomplices were good for him, but really none of his records engage me on that visceral level the way this one does. my conclusion is that the rhythm section is the X factor….

thanks again! enjoy!

#3 from John Adcock, Ashtead, United Kingdom - 11/15/2009 8:56

Hello Tom,
great to read your feedback - this is one of the joys of this website, to exchange news and views on wonderful music.  I fully accept your view on Meets the Rhythm Section, but I guess I’d still go with the emotional intensity of the Village Vanguard set if push came to shove.  The complete recordings include all the rambling intros and talks Pepper gave between the music - you can hear just how wired and edgy he is - and further proof is shown in the booklet notes.  Check out the photo taken at the start of the sessions - and what Pepper looked like at the end.

But either way - the fact he’s made the book is what counts.  I think the guy was a genius, and like a lot of those, often over-looked.

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