The Vanguard sessions (Thursday Night, Friday Night and Saturday Night at The Village Vanguard, Contemporary 7642, 7643, and 7644) were recorded July 28, 29 and 30 1977 at The Village Vanguard, New York City.
Art Pepper's appearances at the Village Vanguard in 1977 were a major success, making the brilliance of the West Coast-based altoist obvious to the New York critics. His historical stint at the Vanguard was originally made available on four LPs (all reissued as CDs with one additional selection added on each disc) and more recently in more expanded form as a nine-CD boxed set. The single CD reissue of the Thursday night portion features the great altoist on lengthy versions of "Valse Triste," a particularly passionate version of "Goodbye," "Blues for Les," "My Friend John" and "Blues for Heard." In addition to Pepper, his trio - pianist George Cables, bassist George Mraz and drummer Elvin Jones - is also in top form, and the music is consistently stimulating and emotional.
All Music Guide
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Every jazz musician and every jazz listener - knows that there are times when a gig is just a gig, and there are times when a gig is an electrifying emotional high, the kind of transcendent experience that stays with you for years and maybe forever.
Sometimes it's just a question of the vibes being right the right room, the right musicians, the right audience, the right tunes. And sometimes you can pinpoint more specifically why everything seems so much larger than life; sometimes there is an obvious significance to a gig that helps lift if out of that another-night-at-the-club category onto that rarefied every-once-in-a-while level.
Such was the case when Art Pepper played the Village Vanguard on two separate occasions in the summer of 1977, the second of which is represented here. The mere fact that Pepper was playing the Vanguard was noteworthy in itself; although he was 51 years old at the time and had been recognized as second only to Charlie Parker on the alto saxophone by the readers of Down Beat as long ago as 1951. Pepper had never led a group in a New York nightclub before he appeared at the Vanguard with a quartet in late June. In fact, he had only played in a club in New York once before and that was as a featured sideman with Buddy Rich's big band in 1969.
Some might say that the mere fact Pepper was alive in 1977 was noteworthy in itself. Enough has been written about his long and painful struggle with drugs and the law most eloquently by Pepper himself, with the help of his wife Laurie, in his recent autobiography Straight Life (published by Schirmer Books, A Division of Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc.) to make recounting that struggle here superfluous. Suffice it to say that Pepper had endured enough hardship, much of it by his own hand, to have done in a less sturdy soul, by the time he undertook his first real tour as a leader.
Pepper's appearance at the Vanguard came shortly after Dexter Gordon had his triumphant homecoming at the same venue, and about a year before yet another saxophonist of the same generation. Johnny Griffin, scored a similar triumph.
About a year after Griffin's return, still another outstanding saxophonist who had first hit his stride in the early 1950s, James Moody, made his first New York appearance in several years in front of equally enthusiastic crowds.
All of these events were special, and all of them engendered the kind of special vibes I mentioned, but there was something very different about
Pepper's New York debut. After all, it was just that, a debut. Gordon, Griffin and Moody had all been, at one time or another, fixtures on the New York club scene. But for Pepper, who used to be identified by the people whose job it is to identify other people as a member of the West Coast School whatever that was New York was virgin territory.
The drug busts and the long stretches in stir at Synanon served to effectively interrupt Pepper's career on more than one occasion, just as it looked to be picking up steam. Without them, it's safe to assume he would have made innumerable appearances in New York and throughtout the country and built up a loyal following. As it was, although the cognoscenti knew him from his records, and others knew him by reputation, he was virtually an unknown quantity in New York as a live performer.
Art Pepper, in other words, had a lot more to prove in New York than his three contemporaries. Gordon, Griffin and Moody had left the scene when they found work getting scarce and the local climate getting increasingly unfriendly. These and other circumstances obviously had influenced their moves, but the fact is they had all left voluntarily. For Pepper, it wasn't a case of choosing to leave and then choosing to come back. It was more a case of being forced to start all over again.
It's not surprising that the atmosphere at the Vanguard during that first engagement was charged with anticipation and excitement. There was a lot of tension, too. Pepper obviously felt both stimulated and frightened by the challenge. (He recently told writer Burt Korall: "I'm terrified of audiences. It doesn't seem to matter how well I do, the fear continues") Also contributing to the tension on this first date, was the fact that Pepper and his rhythm section never quite felt comfortable with each other. (In fact, the pianist he had been planning to use a highly respected East Coast veteran had proved totally incompatible in rehearsals. His last-minute replacement was a good player but spent much of the week at the Vanguard trying, with only intermittent success, to fit in.)
In spite of the problems, it was one of those memorable gigs. Pepper quite simply blew his heart out. revealing a sound far more impassioned than had ever been captured on record. Listeners came away with the conviction that this man was a brilliant musician, and that if he were to work through some of his understandable nervousness and hook up with a compatible rhythm section, his brilliance would shine even more clearly.
That's what happened a month later. The rhythm section Les Koenig put together for Pepper's return engagement at the Vanguard was so awesome that it seemed. on paper, as if they might overwhelm or upstage him. Instead, they inspired him and vice versa. George Cables ("the master' Pepper called him). George Mraz (perhaps the most sensitive of the wave of technically impeccable bassists Europe has produced in recent years), and Elvin Jones (more than just a great drummer; one of the handful of musicians in jazz history to have actually changed the conception of how an instrument is played) are all consummate professionals and exceptional artists. They understood what Pepper needed in the way of support and encouragement, and they understood what he didn't need in the way of grandstanding and spotlight-hogging. Egos were sublimated, artistic and temperamental conflicts were nonexistent, and the quartet played with a fire and cohesiveness rare even in units that have been together for years.
The rhythm section inspired Pepper, Pepper inspired the rhythm section, everybody inspired the audience, and the audience in turn inspired the musicians back that !v what a transcendent jazz experience is. The environment had a lot to do with it, too. I've never understood precisely why the Village Vanguard has been the site of so much superior jazz, why it so often seems to lift musicians' playing from the mundane to the magnificent, but it has and it does.
The Vanguard is a small, inauspicious place; you have to descend a steep flight of stairs to get to it; it frequently becomes so crowded that it's almost impossible to move, and if enough people happen to be smoking various kinds of cigarettes it can be almost impossible to breathe as well. But the Vanguard is the only nightclub in New York that has consistently booked jazz throughout the past quarter century, and its legendary proprietor Max Gordon has proudly persisted through times of the music's rumored death as well as its documented resurgence.
The club is often thought of by jazz artists as the best place to play in New York and possibly in the nation; cynics might say that's because all the other places are so rotten, but that's a bit too glib to explain the Vanguard's longevity. It also doesn't explain why it has been the site of so much remarkable music, much of which, happily, survives on record including some of John Coltrane's most impassioned playing, the delicately-wrought work of the original Bill Evans trio, a short-lived but heroic Sonny Rollins trio. Dexter Gordon's aforementioned joyous homecoming, and of course the sounds contained here.
Lester Koenig. the genial, soft-spoken gentleman who created Contemporary Records (and who stuck with Art Pepper through everything that befell him) had the foresight to know that magic was likely to occur when Pepper returned to the Vanguard with this group, and for three nights he had the tape machines running.
Jazz is by nature an evanescent music, and most of those special moments live on only in people's memories. But every once in a while they do get recorded. The precise chemistry of those summer nights at the Vanguard couldn't be preserved, but the music could, and was and here it is.
- Peter Keepnews (January 25. 1980)