FROM THE PRODUCER: WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT
This is very likely the first time in jazz recorded history where all of the compositions of a jazz artist have been collected in one place. 43 tunes on 5 CDs survey the compositional landscape of baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams (1930-1986), who wrote small group features, many on his albums as a leader. Half of his compositional output was written after 1977, when he left the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra to tour the world as a soloist. The other half was written for recordings made over a 21 year stretch--some his, many on dates as a sideman. Virtually all of Adams's compositions are on long out-of-print, obscure record labels, such as San Francisco, Mode, and Spotlite, thus, completely overlooked and unheard. Adams's oeuvre can be loosely grouped into the following categories: Swingers (18), Ballads (7), Blues (7), Latin (5), Rhythm Changes (3), Waltzes (3). Possibly most idiomatic is his body of Strayhorneque ballads. Adams considered Ephemera to be his greatest composition. For this first of four dates, Chicago born arranger and pianist Jeremy Kahn has refashioned nine Adams originals to feature Gary Smulyan, arguably the world's leading baritone saxophone soloist. Bassist Rob Amster and drummer George Fludas round out this extraordinary band.
FROM THE LEADER: MORE PEPPER PLEASE
My first recording as part of this Pepper Adams project was a trio date in June of 2006. It must have gone well enough, because producer Gary Carner enlisted me for a second go-round with the trio, this time adding baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. It took place in June, 2007, in the same studio that had been the setting for our first session: Steve Ford’s great space on Clark Street in Chicago, with the mighty Grotrian piano.
Although I had one nagging concern about the project, I chose not to voice it: When putting players together who have never played with each other (Gary Smulyan had never played with Rob Amster, George Fludas, or me), a “slam dunk” is not guaranteed, no matter how impressive the pedigree of the musicians involved. It’s just not possible to predict if a good musical chemistry will materialize in the short time allotted, even if the Producer has decided that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Also, no matter how sterling someone’s reputation, there’s no way of knowing how he will respond to unfamiliar (and difficult, as it turned out for us) material.
Certainly, going into the project, my preconception of Gary Smulyan was that he is a great player. My extremely limited knowledge of him included the fact that he had been in the Mel Lewis Orchestra for many years, and that, in the small world of great baritone sax players, he was considered to be the Baddest of the Badasses, our generation’s Pepper Adams. I also assumed that Pepper was, undoubtedly, a big influence on his musical approach.
Although I had never played with Gary. I think we crossed paths once in Brooklyn in the early '80s at an ongoing, all-musician softball game in Prospect Park. This was a great hang. Guys like Tim Horner, Ed Howard, the Eubanks brothers, Michael Weiss, and Branford Marsalis, to name a few, used to come and play ball. It was a rotating cast of characters, and we called ourselves the “Reeferdome All-Stars,” but I digress.
A couple of months after making the Pepper Adams trio recording in 2006, serendipity dictated that my path would cross with Gary’s. My family and I took a trip to New York City, and I went to hear my old buddy Tim Horner sit in with the Vanguard Orchestra. (This was what the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band was now called after Mel’s passing.) Who should be playing baritone sax? Why, it was none other than Gary Smulyan, playing some great stuff. (I recall a Pepper-like quote of “Harvest Moon” on the bridge of some Rhythm Changes.) And, since I had my bari-playing teenage son with me, I introduced myself to Gary on a break. He remembered me, and we had a real nice chat about many things, including the ongoing Pepper Adams recording project that was Gary Carner’s labor of love.
Little did Smulyan or I realize at the time that, within a few months, plans would be finalized for the two of us to embark on the next chapter of this Pepper-palooza. So, by early 2007, I needed to coordinate the music that had been chosen for this recording. Luckily, I had copies of the leadsheets that had been written out by Pepper (courtesy of Chicago bari sax guru Ron Kolber) for every tune except for one, a simple 12-bar blues.
These leadsheets were extremely helpful. I came to regard them as “Sacred Texts” that represented Pepper’s original intentions, no matter how much they may have evolved in various recordings. I arranged little intros and codas for the tunes, but, for the most part, I think that we played them fairly close to Pepper’s intentions. One exception, however, would be “Dylan’s Delight,” where, at the Producer’s request, I messed around with some (hopefully) Mingus-like sudden changes of time feel. But even that one was still pretty faithful to Pepper’s original concept, when it came to the solos. Okay, another exception would be “Diabolique II,” but that was just Rhythm Changes, performed as a duet for sax and drums, in which Gary and George simply let it fly in a minimally arranged fashion. These melodies that Pepper wrote were obviously best suited to be played by a baritone saxophonist, so it was great to have them in their “natural habitat.” Plus, I was just glad that someone other than me would be doing the bulk of the soloing.
At Gary Smulyan’s request, I was able to book a couple of nights for the quartet at Chicago’s coolest jazz venue, The Green Mill. The Garys arrived on Friday afternoon, and the weekend’s schedule shaped up thusly:
Friday: The Green Mill, 9pm-1:00am
Saturday: Recording, 1-5pm
Saturday: The Green Mill, 8pm-Midnight
Sunday: Recording, 3-11pm
That’s a whole lot of togetherness. I remember hoping, with great fervor, that Gary Smulyan would be 1) pleasant to be around, and 2) musically compatible with Rob, George, and myself. Otherwise, it could prove to be one seriously long-ass weekend.
I’m glad to report that the answer was a resounding “yes” to both. For our gigs at the Mill, we deliberately avoided any of the Pepper tunes, even though, on a certain level, it might have been helpful to use the gig as a rehearsal for the recording. But, truth be told, they were just too hard to risk playing them unrehearsed in front of a paying audience. Plus, Gary had just gotten over a three-week case of pneumonia, and he wanted to have fun playing with the band. Instead, we wisely chose a bunch of jazz standards with which we were all familiar and comfy. I think that this helped to quickly establish an underlying chemistry that enhanced this recording.
Regarding the tunes on this recording, or other Adams tunes I've played, Pepper Adams (like any jazz composer who is also a great instrumental soloist) clearly wrote his tunes as vehicles for himself; vehicles that would bring out the best in his playing. And these tunes are derived from the same genetic material as virtually all those that come from this post-Hard Bop style: a healthy mix of minor, major, and dominant chords, along with the usual ii-V-I chord progressions that can journey through a variety of tonal centers. Those of us who are given the challenge to create something beautiful from a piece of paper containing these kind of instructions eventually start to notice recognizable patterns after doing it a few hundred times, and these recognizable patterns create a comfort zone that enables the improviser to be relatively free from the burden of having to think too much. Why then, we all wondered in the recording studio, did Pepper’s tunes largely deny us that luxury? Our short answer: With the exception of the 12-bar blues and Rhythm Changes, while they did consist of the usual harmonic components, Adams’s unique combination of these components created a landscape that studiously avoided taking the soloist to the usual destinations, thereby making it difficult to ever really settle into a comfort zone. Because of this, I can honestly say that I’ve never played any tunes that were quite like Pepper’s.
If you feel you’ve achieved some degree of success in any new project, then the satisfaction you derive will be all the greater if it comes despite not having been allowed into your comfort zone during the process. We do hope that you appreciate our humble efforts at keeping these masterful works of the great Pepper Adams alive in these recordings by enjoying the contents herein.
FROM THE PRODUCER: ME AND THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC
In 1984, at the age of 28, I had the good fortune of meeting saxophonist Pepper Adams. He was coming off a serious leg accident, that had kept him incapacitated and house-bound for six months, and I was looking to interview a jazz musician at length for a masters thesis I needed to complete for my degree at City College. Little did I know that he would die two years later and that I would dedicate the rest of my life to preserving his legacy.
We met at regular intervals throughout the summer, taping interviews about his glorious life. He was very prepared, and he spoke in depth about his early life, his experiences with some of the great musicians of our time, and his various recordings. Things were moving along beautifully; so much so that I felt we had the beginnings of a terrific co-written autobiography. Seven months later, however, on a tour of Sweden, Adams was diagnosed with lung cancer, and for almost two years he would fight for his life. We saw each other and spoke on the phone sporadically. Without his active participation, the project took a different turn as I moved to Boston to pursue a Ph.D. I knew I was well along on the biography. Now it was time to focus on the discographical and musicological aspects of Adams's work.
I began the intense archeology necessary to assess forty years of recordings. I listened closely to his playing. I learned about his terrific body of 43 compositions, scattered about on obscure LPs made by even more obscure labels here and abroad. I began to interview his musicians and friends. I got a contract from the Smithsonian to write Pepper's biography. But, most importantly for me, something happened that changed my life forever. Pepper's closest friend, pianist Tommy Flanagan, visited Pepper at his home four days before Pepper died. On Pepper's nightstand, Tommy told me, was my manuscript, about 300 pages of interview material. Flanagan told me that Pepper was very frail and lapsing in and out of coma. But once, when he came to, he tried feebly to nudge with his fingers the stack of material in Tommy's direction, as if to draw attention to it, as if to give it weight, as if to suggest that this was what would be left behind about him after his death. Then and there, as the power of Flanagan's story washed over me, I knew that I would dedicate my life to preserving Pepper's legacy.
It's now 24 years later and this is exactly what I've done. Adams has become my life's purpose. I have collated his papers, his music, and the remains of his estate. The first of two books I'm doing about him, an annotated discography, is now completed. I'm well along on his full-length biography too. But those amazing tunes? I had done the work and unearthed them. What was I to do?
About five years ago I thought of something. A saxophonist in Chicago, Ron Kolber, told me that Pepper had sent him copies of most of his leadsheets about three weeks before he passed away. Pepper told him, "Protect them with your life!" and, fortunately, he had. Maybe I should produce a CD of Pepper tunes? That seemed interesting. But one night at the Village Vanguard, it hit me like a thunderbolt: "ALL of them!" I thought. One recording wouldn't be enough. "It's about the legacy," I remembered." I would have to record all of them.
So this is what I've done. I've self-produced, at my own expense so it's done the right way, all 43 compositions by four different small groups. I handpicked the musicians and tunes for each to play. Two CDs, for trio and quartet, are led by the terrific Chicago pianist and arranger Jeremy Kahn, who has done so much to breathe new life into Pepper's music with fascinating introductions and codas. One of his dates features baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, widely regarded as today's leading soloist. A third recording, led by Atlanta pianist Kevin Bales, uses the the guitar of Barry Greene as the lead voice in a quartet setting. It's rare in jazz that two top soloists play at this high a level. Bales transcribed several tunes from the original recordings, as did saxophonist Frank Basile, who laboriously transcribed even more of Pepper's early tunes, which he arranged on his date for trio, quartet, quintet, and sextet. On his date is bassist Dennis Irwin, who would pass away about a half a year later.
What we have here is the complete body of work by a gifted and original jazz composer. Four terrific recordings as played by musicians exceedingly passionate about the music. What a joy this has been for me! And for the musicians too, since many of them played with Adams when they were young and impressionable.
Pepper Adams died at 55, much too young, and with so much music still inside him that we'll never know. What we can know is his great body of work that he left for us to discover. In his last few years of life, a new generation of musicians--some of whom are on these recordings--were hired by Adams for club dates. They knew in their bones that his book of music was innovative. As Mendelssohn did for Bach so many centuries ago, I'm trying to tell the world, with these musicians as my vehicle, about this extraordinary collection of tunes that has for far too long been completely overlooked. I think it's time for Pepper's star to ascend. Thanks for your help!