Many musicians’ careers go like this: early efforts bristling with rawness and urgency, a successful creative peak where a bit of polish is added but doesn’t overwhelm, and then a long downward slope where earlier ambition is replaced by simply refining or just plain simplifying one’s sound. A case in point might be the progressive rock band Rush who after their late 70s/early 80s peak mostly abandoned odd-time signatures and epic-length works to concentrate more on songwriting. Boo.
Anyway, it’s exciting to look at an early and a late recording by an artist and see the reverse happen. Take saxophonist Art Pepper (1925-1982) and contrast his Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section album from 1957 with his Complete Village Vanguard Sessions from 1977. The former showcases Pepper’s facility, brevity and clean tone while the latter documents more sonic experimentation with longer songs, longer solos, and an exploration of the noisier potential of his instrument.
Of course, some of the difference can be attributed to one being a studio recording and the other being a live album. But also in the interim between 1957 and 1977, the influence of soul-searching, sonic explorer, saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967) can’t be denied. Pepper’s use of Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones (1927-2004), for the gigs at the Vanguard further reinforces the Coltrane connection. Also certainly, Pepper’s mental illness and drug problems affected his process, both creatively in manic episodes where he would write new material all night in his hotel bathroom or destructively where years of his career were lost to addiction and prison. Read his memoir Straight Life: the Story of Art Pepper or watch Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor if you want to know more, but for now, I’ll advise concentrating on his music and avoiding any romanticizing of troubled artists.
Check out those two worthwhile recordings (and others) and hear what Art Pepper was able to accomplish despite his troubles.