Forgoing any semblance of genre classification or comparison, Art Pepper was, simply, one of the greatest saxophonists and musical innovators of his time. It can be argued that, even 33 years past his death in 1982, Pepper is still one of the greatest saxophonists and musical innovators of any time, period. Embracing a head-on approach to his music, Pepper’s compositions were always earthy and broad in scope, striving to exemplify the perfection in imperfection and the raw soundscape that could be enveloped by inflections of jazz, blues, and soul. Nothing quite epitomized this as well as Pepper’s live performances could, which his latest series of vinyl-to-CD re-releases, entitled Neon Art, fully encapsulates.
Neon Art Volume One is comprised of a mere two tracks, both originals penned by Pepper during his final career-oriented era preceding his unfortunate death, and each recorded but around a year before said death on January 21, 1981 at Seattle’s Parnell’s. However, quantity is easily bested by quality, here, and one must consider the length of these two sonic tangents, each of which clock in at nearly 20 minutes. Accompanied by an indelible crew in the form of Milcho Leviev (piano), David Williams (bass), and Carl Burnett (drums), Pepper peppers his soul throughout “Red Car” and “Blues for Blanches” in the way that only a virtuoso like him could.
Pepper improvises his way across a good portion of the first composition, driven by rollicking piano on behalf of Leviev that is nothing short of worthy of note. Williams has his moment on the second of the two tracks, “Blues for Blanches”, which features a walking bass line that can go unmatched in the standard droll of modern mainstream music. Burnett keeps the beat in magnificent, if not understated and underrated, power, like a Ringo Starr of the jazz scene. As the performance nears its end, even he gets his moment with a stunning solo. Meanwhile, Pepper destroys the track in the best way possible, exemplifying incredibly expert breath control as he blows his way through the composition on his sax like nobody’s business.
Ultimately, Neon Art Volume One caters excellently to the jazz loving crowd who are fine with some extra genre-fusing dabblings into soul, funk, and blues expenditures. It isn’t the best release of the Neon Art series, acting as more of a precipice to board before diving headfirst into the lengthier and meatier offerings on display in Neon Art Volume Two and Neon Art Volume Three. What it does, though, and what it is meant to do, it does absolutely successfully. “Red Car”, and especially “Blues for Blanches”, stand up as some of the more exemplary live performances of Pepper’s career, accompanied by some of the strongest backing musicians that the industry had to offer. Even in spirit, Pepper takes his stake on the jazz industry at large as an innovator and a master musician, with Neon Art Volume One being a fine addition to any instrumental music enthusiast worth their stock’s collection.