The difference between Chuck Florence's first session as a leader, 1992's Home on the Range, and 1999's Remembering Jim Pepper may be a little startling, at least on the surface. Home on the Range is a fairly straight-ahead session, but listen closer and it's clear that Florence is a dynamic, adventurous saxophonist -- even when he played a standard like "Besame Mucho," he took it in unpredictable directions. On Remembering Jim Pepper, he embraces that maverick sprit and runs with it, resulting in a rich, satisfying album that works even for listeners unfamiliar with the subject of the tribute. Pepper was one of the leading lights of Native American jazz, and he fused hard bop with R&B and Native American folk music. Florence picks up on each strand on this terrific record, which was record live in concert at the Myrna Loy Theater in Helena, MT, on August 25, 1995. In the liner notes, Florence affirms a quotation from Pepper: "Improvisation...was not, for me, sitting in a row with ten other jokers playing the same thing. It was about expressing myself." That is the driving force on this record, and the entire band (drummer George Schuller, vocalist/alto saxophonist Nicole Kampgen, bassist/vocalist Ed Schuller, and guitarist Craig Hall) takes this attitude to heart. Amazingly, even when the music is at its densest -- and it can get quite complex -- it is never cluttered or overwhelming. In fact, it's inviting. Some listeners might find that the vocals and chants may take them out of the groove, but that's their loss, since it's part of a complex tapestry of sounds and styles that is a tribute not only to Pepper's musical aesthetic but to Florence's abilities as a musician and leader.
---Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide --- 4 stars
JAZZ UPDATE: Chuck Florence rides again !
For a long time I've wondered about Jim Pepper, the Native American tenor player, who died in 1992 at the age of fifty. But there isn’t a lot of his music readily available. Pepper was definitely a modernist, a free player with a big, soulful sound. He toured with Don Cherry in Europe and Africa and he was a member of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. From the little I’d heard I had come to regard him as the best kind of modern jazz musician, a player grounded in the traditions of the horn but open to new influences and styles.
Now we have a sterling interpretation of Pepper’s Native American-based writing, as interpreted by a kindred spirit on tenor, Chuck Florence. Originating in Detroit (he worked with the Detroit Symphony, Brother Jack McDuff, and Mitch Ryder), Chuck now lives in western Montana, until recently on the Salish-Kootenai Reservation. I’ve known Chuck for a long time and he is one of those brilliant jazz musicians who doesn’t seem to need the hectic big city life to keep his chops au courant. I watched him on stage one time, guesting with Jack Walrath’s big band and he all but blew those cats off the boards. He regularly played with the marvelous pianist, the late Jaki Byard, at a jazz festival in Bismark.
Three years ago he fell in with Ed and George Schuller, who had worked extensively with Pepper. Ed had transcribed arrangements of many of Pepper’s compositions and he saw in Chuck Florence the ideal player to bring this music back to the public.
The Schullers on bass and drums, Nicole Kampgen on alto and voice, and guitarist Craig Hall (a Montanan), brilliantly support Chuck in resurrecting Pepper’s splendid music. I like Pepper’s "Lakota Song" especially, and his best known work, "Witchi-Tai-Toe." They also play a couple of tunes by Don Cherry, arranged by Pepper. Cherry was one of my favorite trumpet players, an exciting trumpeter who exuded enthusiasm and love for an amazing range of world music. All the players here are outstanding and this is music that jazz fans will want to hear again and again. But it is Chuck’s playing that thrills me. He is firey, but the fire is banked with his characteristic humor and intelligence. ---Jon A. Jackson
Saxophonist/clarinetist Chuck Florence is a musical chameleon. "He's an original combination of styles, mixing the lush authority of Ben Webster with a penchant for freak tones and double-time runs in the David Murray manner and the rocking blues power of Zoot Sims.”
--- Jerome Wilson, Jazz Critic
This Jim Pepper tribute came about serendipitously. Florence worked a 1995 gig with Joe Lovano, Jacki Byard, and the brothers Schuller: bassist Ed and drummer George. Ed Schuller had worked extensively with Pepper toward the end of the tenor man's life and had transcribed "head" arrangements of many of the compositions the two had played together. Being taken with Florence's expressive playing and learning that Chuck lived on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Schuller thought that the time had come to resurrect the music.
The Schullers worked annually at a music festival in Sandpoint, Idaho (a mere two hundred miles downstream from Florence's mountain hideaway), and things just fell together. Performances of the Pepper music were scheduled for several locales, including the Salish-Kootenai College. Ed recruited his German fiancé, Nicole Kampgen, to sing and play alto; while Florence recruited his occasional trio partner, Craig Hall, a talented Montana guitarist who headquarters in Bozeman. The music on this album was recorded in concert at the historic Myrna Loy theater in Helena, Montana, on August 25, 1995.
Obviously, it was one of those magical jazz evenings when the muses and the planets were in perfect alignment. Florence has many fine moments. His entrance on "Lakota Song" following the chanting is explosive and mighty. Also note Florence's blues-flavored work on "Funny Glasses". This aspect of Florence's music is often overlooked, but he is a superb blues player. I once heard him on stage with Joe Williams, rolling out chorus after chorus of deep, inventive blues. The singer was so impressed he kept referring to Chuck as "Reverend Florence".
This splendid group effort is jazz in the finest sense. It isn't repertory music; it lives, breathes, dances and transcends. It is a long overdue reminder of the fine original contribution Jim Pepper made to American music, and it is a sterling testament to the ongoing excellence of Chuck Florence.
---Dr. Lloyd Anderson, Jazz Historian