Much like his near-contemporary trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker, Art Pepper’s playing through the early and middle parts of his career never reflected the dark elements and destructive impulses that dominated his life off the bandstand. Although both musicians’ work held an aura of wistfulness, they sounded eternally youthful and deeply innocent. In later years, Pepper’s alto mirrored his personal travails more closely, marked by a starkly wounded quality that was unmistakably autobiographical. Baker went to his strange death by defenestration still playing and singing with the same starry-eyed naiveté with which he began.
The Return of Art Pepper comes from one of the earliest of several “returns,” and finds him undiminished despite his time off the scene. Recorded mostly in the very good company of pianist Russ Freeman, trumpeter Jack Sheldon, bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Shelly Manne, the saxophonist plays with a light and singing tone, great clarity of line, and an unmistakable sense of optimism. One wonders how he managed.
The album’s material is composed by members of the group, with a few standards thrown in for ballast. “Pepper Returns,” based on the changes to “Lover Come Back to Me,” is a brisk romp that lets the leader show his Charlie Parker lineage while establishing himself as his own man. Sheldon is surprisingly non-West Coastal here, and Manne is his usual meticulous self during the fours. Art’s tone nearly floats on “You Go to My Head.” A consummate balladeer, he is able, like Parker, to suggest an impossibly beautiful world simply by sticking to a tune’s melody. “Funny Blues” illustrates how convincingly the blues can be played without containing a tinge of southern roots. Pepper has always had an affinity for the blues, as he shows here, as well as on “Tenor Blooz.” Although steeped in the harmonic language of bebop, his breezy tone and unforced phrasing occasionally harkens back to an earlier era, evoking Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and even Lester Young. The contrapuntally played “Minority” is formidably anchored by Vinnegar’s justifiably famous walk. It slips and slides, yet is tempered with pure iron; there’s no modern bass sound that exactly corresponds to it. “Patricia” is a Pepper composition that has a simple, elegant melody, over which he’s able to range freely. Manne gives a fascinating demonstration on how to play drums very slowly and quietly while still prompting the soloist. Art backs away from challenging the champ on Bird’s “Yardbird Suite,” opting to take things down a notch from the original version. Sometimes we have to pick our fights. Pepper’s spin works nevertheless. As does the album’s closer “Straight Life.” This was to become the title of Pepper’s autobiography, and it remains arguably his best tune. Whatever discretion he exhibits in not going toe to toe with Parker on the previous tune, he abandons here, ripping through the changes (based on “After You’ve Gone”) with total confidence. He’s matched by Freeman and Manne, who sound like they’re having the time of their lives.