Although most essential for completists, The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings is a crucial document, broadening and re-contextualizing West Coast jazz and Art Pepper‘s role in it. These seven CDs, recorded on three days in 1981 in Los Angeles, California, offer an invaluable and much-needed re-appraisal of Pepper’s talents as a reedman and bandleader while serving as a bittersweet reminder of a talent taken far too soon. The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings makes a strong case for Pepper’s legacy as one of the greatest saxophonists ever.
Pepper may have had one of the most roller coaster-like careers in jazz history. Starting as a kind of wunderkind in Stan Kenton’s Big Band in the early 1940s, his star would continue to rise for the next decade. By the early 1950s, he would come in a close second to Charlie Parker in Downbeat‘s reader poll for Best Alto Saxophonist. All of this momentum and goodwill would soon be lost, sadly, as Pepper succumbed to a life of addiction to hard drugs, petty crime, and incarceration. The following two decades would be a series of debacles and comebacks.
That’s part of what makes these recordings so bittersweet, although the sweetness outweighs the bitterness by a wide margin. By the late 1970s, Art Pepper had largely gotten his life together, embarking upon his final comeback with a series of exceptional tours and albums. Even among such strong competition, these live recordings stand out. Recorded at the Maiden Voyage, a Japanese-owned jazz club in Los Angeles operational between 1976 and 1983, these 11 sets capture Pepper at the peak of his powers. This is mainly due to his backing band, which is close to a dream line-up, as Pepper gets to work with some of his all-time favorite musicians.
In the liner notes to The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings, Laurie Pepper – Art’s wife, with whom he also co-authored his influential autobiography Straight Life – describes the racial tensions dividing the Los Angeles jazz scene, creating a polarized climate that made it nearly impossible for mixed bands to play together. Pepper tried to play with Black musicians throughout his life but always met with some complications. The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings finds Pepper playing with an all-Black backing band featuring a number of his favorite bandmates and collaborators. It may be Art Pepper’s name on the tin, but George Cables’ piano, David Williams’ bass, and Carl Burnett’s drumming make these recordings such essential listening.
Cables, in particular, plays an enormous part in The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings’ genius, revealing himself as a thoughtful and sensitive pianist who reveled and rejoiced in playing with Pepper. Jazz critic Jack Kenny, writing for JazzViews, quotes Cables as saying, “Art used to give me a lot of freedom, and I used to take it! I enjoyed playing with him. One thing is he taught me how to play a ballad. He showed me how to slow down. Because a lot of times, everybody wants to ‘double up’ when you play a ballad, ‘Double up! Don’t play slow, double up!’ I’d get so nervous about playing so slow I didn’t want to wait that long! But Art played ballads so beautifully, I just kind of fell in with him. I had to, you know!” Cable’s penchant for big, bold open chords places his playing somewhere between Debussy and Keith Jarrett, minus the moaning.
The rhythm section is almost as striking, though. Williams, a bass player from Trinidad, steps far outside of simple walking basslines, venturing into more melodic territory with numerous bowed solos and breakdowns across the seven CDs. Burnett’s drumming doesn’t show off too much, restricting his breaks and fills to four- and eight-bar breaks when not bubbling along like a carbonated beverage. This speaks to sensitivity and humility, serving the music instead of his ego – an ethos followed by all four musicians across all three days. Real magic can happen when such talented individuals work towards a common goal.
The first CD alone is like a test reel showcasing what West Coast jazz is capable of. It opens with “Road Waltz”, hearkening back to the slick choreography of the big bands, before galloping into the funky syncopation of “Mambo Koyama”, a reminder that Los Angeles was one of the first places in the United States to embrace Latin American rhythms in jazz. Finally, there’s the laidback, nocturnal romance of “Everything Happens to Me”, as an example of the intimate, mellow small ensembles of cool jazz.
Every track on the first two CDs – the recordings from the two sets on Thursday, 13 August 1981 – introduces some new trick. You get some classy versions of standards, with a breakneck take on Charlie Parker‘s “Donna Lee” and a sweetly old-fashioned rendition of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”, which reveals Art Pepper to be nearly as proficient on the clarinet as he is on sax. “Without a Song”, which closes out disc one, is as smooth as satin, while “Landscape” rumbles, thumps, and glides like the high-speed train that inspired it.
Most of these numbers will be heard again over the following five discs. It’s fairly understandable, as the band played 11 sets in three days. You’ll hear “Road Waltz” three times in total. “Mambo Koyama” also shows up three times. That’s the only thing that makes The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings more for jazz historians, Art Pepper completists, and live music fanatics instead of a bona fide classic for the ages. Listening to all seven discs back to back creates a kind of musical deja vu as you repeatedly encounter the same melodies and themes. It can also act as a crash course in live music appreciation, though, as you notice the subtle variations of each version. “Samba Mom Mom” feels entirely different coming out of the percolating post-bop of “Without a Song” than it does opening up the third set of day two, where it feels as bright and sprightly as a spring day. “But Beautiful” is even more somnolent coming out of another ballad, “Valse Triste”, than from the swinging early jazz of “When You’re Smiling”.
The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings illustrates how reductive it is to think of West Coast Jazz as synonymous with cool jazz. While most of cool jazz’s essential documents originated in California, that’s just the beginning of the story. Some of the earliest jazz recordings in the world were made there. Most jazz legends played in the City of Angels at some point. It’s unfair to write off all West Coast jazz as genteel, polite chamber music played by white musicians. Even in this broader context, though, Pepper is an anomaly.
The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings reveals a talent on par with John Coltrane at his most searching and uncompromising, often transforming even laidback ballads into ferocious explosions of sound rarely heard outside of the East Coast or the 1960s and 1970s. Art Pepper is as fierce and ferocious as fellow free jazz warriors like Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, or Anthony Braxton. While it’s not exactly an insult that he’s so often mentioned alongside musicians like Bill Evans or Dave Brubeck, it’s not entirely accurate. Here’s hoping this lovingly compiled document will help to set the record straight.