LAST MAY, just a few weeks before his death, saxophonist Art Pepper participated in his first duo recording session. Joining him was pianist Geroge Cables, a close friend and kindered spirit. Together they worked on the collection of mostly standard tunes, including several pieces that featured Pepper playing the clarinet.
Laurie Pepper, the saxophonist's wife and collaborator, said Pepper viewed the clarinet as "a glorious but often defiant instrument," and he came away from this session deeply satisfied. After hearing the results, on the album "Goin' Home" (Galaxy GXY-5143), one can easily understand why.
No doubt Pepper and Cables would be an inspired pairing in any context, but this one-on-one setting suits them particularly well. Clearly Cables is an underrated pianist possessing a strong and personal touch. He can unravel the keyboard swiftly, but more often his playing is defined by boldly articulate and unhurried phrasing, as well as the ease with which he balances melodic and rhythmic concerns. Being a resourceful musician, someone who can move confidently from spirituals to swing to bop to waltz time, as this album demands, is another of his strengths.
Pepper's playing is more subdued but certainly no less expressive. On clarinet, in particular, his tone isn't as full or as ripe as it could be, but it nonetheless masterfully conveys a lingering, often haunting, melancholy. Typical is "Goin' Home," the spiritual contained within Dvorak's "New World Symphony." An understated lyricism marks Pepper's performance. His phrasing, always thoughtful and deliberate, builds in emotional intensity against the backdrop of Cables' gospel-rooted chording and uncluttered arrangement. A conventional rhythm section would only be superfluous or intrusive; Pepper and Cables require no additional support.
Further evidence of the unusual rapport that existed between these two musicians is heard on the other clarinet features: Ellington's "In a Mellotone" and the torch standard "Lover Man." The former illustrates Cables' quick response time, his right hand darting in and out of the melody, while his left provides Pepper with harmonic clues and a gently swinging pulse. The latter is given a distinctly poignant reading, capped by a lovely coda by Pepper.
As for Pepper's performances on alto saxophone, they may not rank with his finest work, but the best of them have plenty to offer. His own "Samba Mom Mom" and Charlie Parker's obstacle course, "Billie's Bounce," both somehow manage to retain the album's pervasive sense of informality despite jagged phrases and fast tempos. And the neglected blues ballad "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin' " has seldom received more thoughtful treatment from a saxophonist.
This isn't the last we'll hear of Art Pepper; death has a peculiar way of reappraising the market value of old or unreleased recordings. But future albums will be hard-pressed to match the special collaborative spirit heard on "Goin' Home."
IRA SULLIVAN is perhaps the most versatile and skilled brass and reed player in jazz today. Since reuniting with bop trumpeter Red Rodney a few years ago, a partnership that dates back several decades, Sullivan has finally received some of the recognition long due him.
Much of that recognition, however, has been based on his recordings and concerts with Rodney, sessions of a decidedly boppish bent. On his own recordings (as well as his latest with Rodney), Sullivan has moved well beyond the confines of bop, but he has never done so in a more eclectic manner than on the recently released "Multimedia" (Galaxy GXY-5137).
The album has its drawbacks: guitarist Joe Diorio's extended guitar solos seldom amount to much and the sheer diversity of moods in this collection makes it difficult to digest in one sitting. The title track, for example, incorporates Latin, jazz, funk and rock elements and, in an apparent effort to live up to its title, seems unnecessarily complicated and contrived. However, taken piece by piece, the album quickly reveals Sullivan's talent as a musician and an arranger.
Drummer Billy Higgins provides him with support on both Charlie Parker's "Anthropology" and a refreshingly different version of "Autumn Leaves," but Sullivan is at his best when using the variety of tonal colors at his disposal. For example, the combination of John Heard's bowed bass lines, Higgins' martial cadences and Sullivan's use of soprano saxophone, trumpets and flutes transforms "Painted Ladies (A Confiscated Bolero)" into a richly textured and evocative ensemble piece.
Through overdubbing, Sullivan achieves a similar if considerably less original effect on "Strut," this time using African-derived rhythms and tribal chants as a backdrop for his trumpets, flutes and sax. It's this versatility that allows Sullivan to take advantage of orchestral possibilities in jazz without stifling improvisation.