Despite his extensive drug-related jail time, Pepper was a prodigious and surprisingly consistent recording artist. The late-50s and early-60s were particularly fruitful years, minting classics that include 1957’s Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section and 1959’s Art Pepper + Eleven. But among these well-known catalog highlights were smaller gems, such as this 1956 release. Recently freed from a federal penitentiary, married his second wife, Diane, and gigging regularly around Los Angeles, Pepper recorded this one-off, low-key quartet date for the Tampa label. Accompanying Pepper is his longtime colleague Russ Freeman on piano, and West Coast regulars Ben Tucker on bass and Gary Frommer on drums.
The repertoire for this outing included five Pepper originals, along with interpretations of the standards “I Surrender Dear” and “Besame Mucho.” Pepper’s widow, Laurie, notes in the liners that the takes are shorter than one might expect for a jazz album - all of the master takes are under six minutes, and “Val’s Pal” a tidy 2’04. But that still leaves room for Pepper and Freeman to exchange ideas, and the conciseness of their solos is appealing. Freeman’s comping leads the rhythm section as Pepper solos, and though this isn’t the saxophonist’s most adventurous outing, its relaxed, optimistic mood is charming and unusual among Pepper’s catalog as a session leader.
Omnivore’s reissue adds alternates of “Pepper Pot” and “Blues at Midnight,” and session tapes from the recording of “Val’s Pal.” The latter are particularly interesting, as they detail a complete first pass, and the false starts and incomplete takes that led to the master. Laurie Pepper’s liner note provide background on the session’s recording and its road to reissue, providing the sort of context that’s often lost or overlooked in a straight-up reissue of a lesser-known catalog entry. This may not be the place to begin an appreciation of Pepper’s catalog - his ‘50s and early-60s highlights and remarkable comeback in the 1970s are more obvious starting points - but its reissue is a welcome addition to the Pepper library. [©2017 Hyperbolium]