Jazzman Art Pepper may be one of the genre’s wildest characters. Though an excellent bop performer, it was his reputation that made him known: his drug habit, his wild antics, and his prison stints–all wonderfully documented in his harrowing autobiography, Straight Life–unfortunately have a tendency to overshadow the music he made. Dying suddenly in 1982, less than three years after the publication of his memoirs, meant that his his rep–rather than his music–would be the talking point that would last. Thankfully, his widow, Laurie Pepper, has done an excellent job of keeping his legacy alive and fresh, via her Widow’s Choice label imprint, as well as her involvement in key reissues of his work.
Neon Art: Volume One, was released in 2012 on vinyl via Omnivore Recordings, and is now seeing a wider CD and digital release. The two tracks featured here capture Pepper live in Seattle, a year before his death, and both tracks find him in fine form. “Red Car” is a jaunty number that pays tribute to the first new car he bought, and the bouncy piano work of Michio Leviev lays down a groove that captures the pride of ownership, accentuated by Pepper’s easy-going, sunny-day saxophone playing. The second track, “Blues for Blanche,” is an equally jaunty, cool-sounding affair. Blanche was Pepper’s cat, and this is a fitting tribute for a feline; devil-may-care, funky, and fun.
What makes this set so enjoyable is that it is is the sound of a man simply enjoying being onstage. If you can’t envision Pepper giving a wide smile during the applause in the middle of “Red Car,” then you aren’t really trying, man.