Saturday, April 30, 2011

Michael Fremer Album Review

Will this seven LP Pepper set spice up your jazz record collection?

The Complete Art Pepper At Ronnie Scott's Club
(reissue/new issue)

Art Pepper

Pure Pleasure PPAN012 7 180g LPs

Produced by: Peter Bould
Engineered by: Peter Bould, Peter Ball and Graham Ward
Mixed by: N/A
Mastered by: Ray Staff at Air Mastering



Art Pepper Ronnie Scott Stand Issued Complete
by Michael Fremer
April 01, 2011

Alto sax bop legend Art Pepper (1925-1982) had accrued a lot of mileage but few OnePass points when he blew into London with his trio in June of 1980 to play a fortnight gig at the famous Ronnie Scott’s Club.

The group consisted of the hard charging classically trained Bulgarian émigré Milcho Leviev on piano, Tony Dumas on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. The latter two had worked in a trio with pianist George Cables and so already played in lockstep.

If you have any interest at all in Pepper the musician (and if you’re considering purchase of this pricey but astonishing 7 LP set chances are good you do), you should read “Straight Life The Story of Art Pepper” by Art and Laurie Pepper (Schirmer Books).

The autobiography is a can’t-put-it-down read wherein lays it all out: the junkie life, prison, playing jazz with the greats from Sonny Stitt to Benny Carter and most of all his unremorseful look at his own flawed character revealed without an ounce of self-pity.

“So between the Percodan and the Dexamyl and the Cosanyl and pot and juicing very heavy I was doing good because I wasn’t using heroin,” he writes about half way through the book. When that’s “doing good” you can only imagine his descriptions of “doing bad.”

If ‘50s jazz is your bag this book gives you an inside look at the lifestyle of the musicians who played and lived it from a white-hipster’s POV, written with charm, sincerity and most especially brutal honesty.

But we’re here to review the music and records not the book and even if you don’t buy the book, this package gives you plenty to chew on musically and in the written text that's included in the Mosaic style booklet that accompanies the seven LPs.

Pepper and his group arrived at Ronnie Scott’s not knowing how they would be received. To their great surprise, the response, not to mention the attendance, was overwhelming.

Appropriately, as word of the superb sets spread through London, the owners of Mole Jazz, then the city’s pre-eminent jazz record show, inquired about a live recording.

Arrangements were made and recordings were made of the Friday and Saturday sets June 27 and 28 1980. For some reason the credits on the original LPs claim Sunday night the 29th was also recorded.

The multi-mike analogue recording was mixed live to two track stereo without noise reduction, limiting, compression or equalization and when Ray Staff cut the original lacquers back in 1980 he used no noise reduction, limiting, compression or equalization (other than RIAA of course!).

Mole issued Blues For the Fisherman (Stereo Mole 1) a single LP containing two tracks per side as The Milcho Leviev Quartet since Pepper was then signed to the Galaxy label in America. Pepper wrote the liner notes extolling the virtues of Leviev’s piano playing and while they provided legal cover for the enterprise, they ring true as you’ll hear if you take the plunge and buy this set.

In 1981 Mole issued True Blues (Stereo Mole 5), a four tune follow up from the same date that included “Straight Life” but soon both records went out of print. Linn Music, a division of the audio manufacturer that makes the Sondek turntable briefly brought the first album back into print in the early ‘90s, as I recall it, pressed using the original metal parts and then that went out of print as well.

Art’s widow Laurie recently found the original tapes. She’d never played them but when that finally happened, she discovered they contained the complete recordings made over the course of those three evenings, complete with Art Pepper’s between song song.

Pure Pleasure licensed the material, a flat transfer was made and the tapes once again were given to Ray Staff, who edited where appropriate. Staff left all of the music and the between song patter, to produce this seven LP set that’s never less than fully riveting even though four tunes were repeated on the second day of recording, perhaps to assure there would be good takes for the final original LP and as is always the case in live performances there’s some time filling and vamping.

Nonetheless if you’re a Pepper fan, you’ll treasure every moment here that includes seventeen previously unreleased performances along with the eight already released on the two Mole Records releases.

Pepper plays throughout with the high energy enthusiasm, virtuosity and creativity of someone half his age, while his lyricism and gorgeous, sensitive ballad playing could only come from someone of his age.

Pepper picks up a clarinet—his first instrument—and plays a memorable take on Parker’s “Ornithology” and though he mumbles an apology afterwards, clearly none was needed.

You’ll agree that his enthusiasm for the sparkling playing of Leviev was well-deserved. The rest of the rhythm section plays with equal precision and sympathy.

The live recording quality is superb (though as with any live recording there are occasional glitches): intimate and closely miked, it presents a small club front row perspective that’s long on power, timbral accuracy and dynamics and short on room ambience. Given a choice, I’ll take the former every time. Pepper stands center stage in front of bassist Dumas, while Leviev’s piano is stage left and drummer Burnett’s kit is stage right. Sufficient mike leakage produces a coherent, well-integrated three-dimensional picture.

The Pallas pressing quality is high, the packaging, including a cloth textured box first class and the annotation, complete. There are four interviews with Pepper from 1979 and 1980, an illuminating essay written last year by Alun Morgan who provided the liner notes for the second original Mole album, nice photos and complete Mosaic-like credits.

As you listen you’ll hear Pepper at one point towards the end of the three-night stand single out a patron who attended every performance. Pepper hands him a magnum of champagne.

After you’ve gone through this seven LP set for the first time you’ll feel like popping the cork on a bottle yourself to celebrate Art Pepper and your good sense in buying and consuming this set that a decade ago would have been impossible to think could ever be issued on vinyl LPs cut from analogue tape.

Thanks to Pure Pleasure’s Tony Hickmott for having the guts to proceed with such a costly set that sounds considerably richer, fuller and more natural than the Linn reissue I have and that sounds plenty good too. It was worth the risk and is worth every penny of its considerable cost.

Thanks to Michael over at for the exclusive rights to reprint this material. Stop by for more reviews and features.

©2011 & Michael Fremer - - All rights reserved

Reprinted by Permission

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