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15 Jun

Art Pepper, the turbulent master of the alto saxophone

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One of the most talented alto saxophonists and at the same time one of the most turbulent personalities of jazz passed away on 15 June 1982: Art Pepper, whose superb mastery of the alto saxophone, exciting compositions and stormy life have left an indelible mark in jazz history.

Art Pepper was born on 1 September 1925 and started playing music when he was only 9 years old.  He became one of the best alto saxophonists of jazz, but he was equally impressive with the clarinet, which he played with a unique technique and a sound unprecedented for the instrument, that no one has managed to emulate so far.  Art Pepper’s mastery of the clarinet is manifested in its most exquisite form in the track «More For Less».

Pepper also played tenor saxophone, though his skill with the tenor was not a match for his incomparable mastery of the alto saxophone and clarinet. Nevertheless, one of his many achievements was the recording of a "duet" (using over-dubbing), playing alto and tenor saxophone sequentially, with perfect synchronization of the two parts of the composition.

He was also a gifted composer, famous for his ability to compose impressive pieces in next to no time. A typical example of Pepper’s ability as a composer was the occasion when, while traveling with colleagues, their car ran out of petrol. The other musicians went to get a can of fuel, returning only to find Pepper waiting for them, having already composed a rather lengthy musical piece.

Pepper was one of the pioneers of bebop and one of the proponents of the style that became known as West Coast Jazz, but he was not influenced by the dominant trend of bebop at the time that was represented by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. His music was often full of blues elements, such as in his track «Thank You Blues».

Growing up with an alcoholic mother and an alcoholic and violent father, Art Pepper had traumatic experiences in his childhood, that left him with many deep psychological scars. He did not trust anyone, and was always looking for someone he could trust, to replace the father he essentially never had. His autobiography «Straight Life», co-written by Pepper and his wife, recounts a life that, in contrast to the title, was not at all conventional. Addicted to heroin during most of his musical career, Art Pepper was imprisoned four times and spent a total of nearly five years in prison. Despite his drug abuse, he managed to regain his creativity as a composer and a saxophonist once he was out of jail.

A lesser known but excellent album of Pepper was recorded in London in 1980; entitled «Blues for the Fisherman» (TAA/Mole, 1980), it was attributed to the quartet of the pianist Milcho Leviev (who nowadays resides and performs in Thessaloniki), as Pepper had contracts with record companies that prohibited him from releasing the album solely in his own name.

Pepper’s discography is huge, but the albums «Live at the Village Vanguard» (Contemporary, 1977, 9 CD), «Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section» (Contemporary, 1957) and «Art Pepper Plus Eleven» (Contemporary, 1959), provide the best examples of his work.  But above all else, Art Pepper’s major legacy is an unparalleled expressiveness on both the alto saxophone and the clarinet.

Mihalis Yianneskis

Last modified on Monday, 13 June 2016 19:15

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