Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings Fills Art Pepper Void on CD, Tidal, Qobuz

Art Pepper is one of those names in Jazz who is revered for his early work but whose later work seems to be overlooked. There may be numerous reasons for that but I suspect part of that reality simply has to do with the passage of time and changing tastes. By the time Pepper started recording actively again after long struggles with addictions, much musical water had passed under the bridge.

AR-ArtPepperArtistHousePlaying450.jpgStill, consider that (according to Omnivore Records' website), Pepper: 

  • Played with everyone from Stan Kenton and Shorty Rogers to Chet Baker, Henry Mancini, and Quincy Jones.
  • His classic album Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section was recorded with Miles Davis' rhythm section.
  • In the 1952 Downbeat Readers Poll he finished second only to Charlie Parker for Best Alto Sax player.

Producer John Snyder recorded Pepper for his Artists House label in the late 70s and early 1980s. It is this music that is the focus of a robust five CD boxed set coming out in mid September from Omnivore Recordings called Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings.  

AR-ArtPepperArtistHousePromiseKeptCover450.jpgFrom the official press materials, a quote from Pepper's widow helps put these recordings into perspective:

"Art Pepper had had a brilliant career as a jazz soloist and band leader until the mid-1950s when he started using heroin" writes Pepper's widow Laurie Pepper who contributed the liner notes for the set. "After that incarcerations and treatments in prisons and hospitals kept him off the stages and out of the studios. He was only able to record sporadically until he got (relatively) sober in Synanon in 1972 and married -- me. Then in the last ten years of his life he composed recorded and toured more ambitiously than ever before focused on securing his place among the true jazz greats -- where he knew he belonged."

Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings documents part of that latter era. Your interest in it will be a matter of just how deeply you groove on Pepper's tone and approach to his instrument. 

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Certainly the sound on these recordings is very nice, probably made on analog gear back in the late 70s. These simply and ultimately lovingly made recordings largely feature Pepper in classic quartet scenarios (there are occasional solo and duo spots here as well).  I've only recently been digging into Pepper's early work as I have gotten my hands on some of his early recordings from the 50s. He was the real deal, no doubt. 

Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings is a nice high fidelity set of recordings which sound good across the five CDs in the package. While I don't own the original Artists House recordings, I did some comparison to other recordings from the era on Galaxy Records (some of which are included on this boxed set) and these CDs sound true to them. They are better to in some ways. Galaxy was a Fantasy Records subsidiary and as such the original vinyl could be noisy, especially in the oil-crisis ridden mid-late 70s and into the 80s when Fantasy's pressings weren't so good. So keep that in mind if you were/are a vinyl fan primarily. The high end on this new set is crisp without any harshness and the bass and midranges are clear and punchy as CDs go. 

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Among the many tracks on Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings, Pepper tackles many jazz classics which -- by the time he recorded them -- were well established standards (more on that in a moment). There are multiple takes and versions of these tunes over the several sessions here and, overall, they sound solid both as recordings and performances. 

To that, if I have any issue with Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings -- and the slew of recordings by Pepper which Omnivore Recordings put out last year (some of which I reviewed here) -- it is that there is just so much here it tends to overwhelm. Respectable though they may be, these performances of songs from an earlier jazz era tend to keep the perspective on Pepper's music backward-looking instead of forward. It seems to me that this period of Pepper's career might be better served by offering a "best of" highlights disc culled from these sessions.  

I would have focused the album on Pepper's originals which -- again, to my ear -- feel like where his heart and soul was on this run of late period recordings: "Blues For Blanche," "Diane," "My Friend John," "Johnny's Blues" and "Landscape."  These are the tracks that sound freshest and most compelling.

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The single album could be peppered with a cover or two, of which there are many takes on this boxed set to choose from including: Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser," Cole Porter's "So In Love," Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" and "Anthropology," Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia," Chano Pozo's "Tin Tin Deo" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust."That said, you can preview "Straight, No Chaser" on Tidal (click here) and Qobuz (click here).

As it stands, Promise Kept: The Complete Artist House Recordings is a collection for hardcore Art Pepper fans. And that is not a bad thing, mind you! But it is, as a friend of mine says: "a lotta lotta!" 

The boxed set will be out mid-September but you can pre-order it now. Just click on any of the title links embedded in this review and you can jump to Amazon. 

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