Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section

I close my eyes and I’m there. Warm breeze, sandy beach, and you’re close enough that I can smell you, sweat and coconut oil. Drink a little rum outta the bottle and kiss it into my mouth. I dunno. These things come to me. I’m listening to Art Pepper’s Meets the Rhythm Section. Ah, what […]

I close my eyes and I’m there. Warm breeze, sandy beach, and you’re close enough that I can smell you, sweat and coconut oil.

Drink a little rum outta the bottle and kiss it into my mouth.

I dunno. These things come to me.


I’m listening to Art Pepper’s Meets the Rhythm Section. Ah, what an amazing album.

This is one of the first jazz album I bought; I had a couple I liked, posted on a USENET newsgroup, this is what I like, help me find more.One of the people who responded turned out to work at my company (This cat’s name was Spank actually, which I always thought was cool.) He said he was replacing some older jazz CD’s with new remastered versions. I bought a stack from him, and it contained some of the true gems of my jazz collection.

Things like Cannonball Adderly’s Something Else, Sonny Rollins Way out West. Maybe a Coltrane album, and Mingus’ Ah Um might have come in this batch too, I can’t remember. But one of these disks was by Art Pepper; a name I had heard but knew nothing about. I didn’t much like the name of the record (Meets the Rhythm Section? Sounds like something out of a comic book, in a bad way). And the cat on the cover was so fucking white:


 Images P B00006L3O9.01. Pe Scmzzzzzzz

I didn’t listen to this disk for a while. I put it at the bottom of the stack. This was when I was working at home most of the time and I was listening to jazz while I worked; I found it was brilliant music to work to.

I finally pulled this disk out and realized who the Rhythm Section were; Miles Davis’ sidemen (Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums.) Two of these guys (Chambers and Jones) would later work on Davis’ landmark Kind of Blue (Which is, in my opinion, not just the best jazz album ever made but the best album ever, of any genre). They were one of the best working bands in existance at the time, and at a creative peak.

So I put the album on, not expecting much. I think I listned to this several times before I realized just how good it was. It didn’t leap at me the way Kind of Blue did, nor the way Coltrane’s Giant Steps smacked me upside the head, nor even the way Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus grabbed my attention. But the performances were all so good, the song selections, the arrangements perfect for the small combo, all were exactly, completely perfect.

And then there’s Pepper’s playing. I wasn’t relaly used to Also sax yet at that time; at first it sort of sounded lightweight to my ear. But once I got used to the differences in the instrument I started to find the beauty in Pepper’s performance. This was before I really had any grasp of the saxophone, so I was learning it as I went, unlike guitar, bass or drums where I’ve actually played them.

Pepper’s performance was lyrical, intense, inspired. It was a truly stellar session for him, in all likelihood the best one of his career. There are raw edges of emotion, yet intense beauty throughout the album. It’s an album which should be listened to in a dark room with eyes closed, like all the very best jazz.

I formed all this opinion, though, before I knew the real story behind this album. Jazz fans know this already.

Pepper was a long-time heroin addict. Lots of these guys were. Before the Stones and the Beatles and all the rock greats got into heroin and made it cool, people like Coletrane and Miles Davis got on the junk and then (some of them) kicked it and went on to play out that pain through their instruments. I’m sure a lot of jazz greats who supposedly died of heart attacks or car crashes really died of an OD, and certainly a lot of them just fried themselves and vanished. But Pepper was, in 1957, deep in thrall to the junk and using heavily (and as I recall, he was only recently out of jail after a drug bust).

The story goes like this:

Les Koenig, founder of Contemporary Records, and Pepper’s wife Diane set up the recording date without telling Pepper. Davis’ band was in Los Angeles for a gig and they had one try to get an album out of this meeting.

They didn’t tell Pepper because they knew he’s freak out if they let him; they didn’t tell him about the gig until that morning, Jan 19, 1957 (Jan 19 is also, by coincidence, my wedding aniversary.)

Pepper wasn’t happy about this. His horn needed repair, and he wasn’t prepared. He hadn’t played in six months.

The story holds that Pepper cooked up a big fat fix, taped up the reed on his sax, and went off to the session, where he blew the set of his career, and made what’s been called “…a diamond of recorded jazz history.”.

I’m sure some of that’s mythology. It’s what happens around sessions like this. But the fact remains, this is one of the great albums of the era, and even if the legend is half true, it takes what’s already a brilliant record and makes it a landmark.

Or as ‘All About Jazz‘ reviewer C. Michael Bailey says of this album:

“Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section is one of those singular events that can only occur in a blaze like reading King Lear by a lightning flash.”

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