CD Review: Art Pepper - Live At Fat Tuesday's

Art Pepper and his band deliver a killer, late-period set.
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Art Pepper was a brilliant musician. In spite of numerous interruptions (and incarcerations) to his career due to his drug dependency, the quality of his musicianship never dipped. Before his untimely death in 1982, he was in the midst of one of his most fertile periods, one that began during the mid 1970s. On April 15, 1981, Pepper played a set at the famous New York City jazz club Fat Tuesday's. It was a case of extreme good fortune that Elemental Music label owner Jordi Soley managed to locate an excellent recording of the show from a collector. After clearing it with Pepper's widow Laurie, the show was released officially as Art Pepper - Live At Fat Tuesday's.

The five-song, 70-minute set is a revelation. Backed by Milcho Leviev on piano, George Mraz on bass and Al Foster on drums, this was a confident band that could go in any direction it wanted at any given moment and had the chops to pull it off. Foster's frantic drums launch the band into a blistering take on Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-A-Ning." Pepper's technical prowess on the sax definitely seems to inspire the band as when he takes a lead, they match him note for note in this exciting opener.

Mraz's walking bass line helps propel a groove-heavy "What Is This Thing Called Love. Pepper carries the melody while the band is allowed to go off, showcasing their awe-inspiring abilities. The audience was in the presence of greatness and they knew it, as evidenced by the loud "yeah!" in the middle of the track's 16 minutes. These were brilliant musicians pushing themselves to the very limits of their abilities and making each other better in the process. Of particular note of Leviev's dizzying piano solo. Great stuff to be sure.

The group slows down the pace considerably with an emotional reading of Benny Goodman's "Goodbye." Pepper's sax lines express longing and sadness, while Leviev and Mraz offer tasteful accompaniment, laying a beautiful foundation for Pepper to improvise over. A pair of Pepper originals close the set with Mraz's killer bass line driving a funk-oriented "Make A List, Make A Wish," while "Red Car" has an up-tempo, gospel feel. It must have been a privilege for the audience to see these fantastic musicians execute this music in person, if the CD is any indication.

Pepper died a little more than a year after this performance, the victim of a stroke at age 56. His death silenced one of jazz's great voices. His prowess remained right until the very end, as evidenced by Live At Fat Tuesday's. Backed by a crack band, this live CD is a treasure for Pepper's fans and a fine representation of his last great period.