Art Pepper in Toronto, 1977

At the end of July 1977, Art Pepper went into New York’s Village Vanguard. Recordings of nine sets over three days at the club would be released years later as a nine-CD boxed set called the Complete Village Vanguard Sessions. It has been heralded as some of Pepper’s finest late-career playing, and rightly so. But a month before his Vanguard run, Pepper was in Toronto at Bourbon Street with a different pickup trio—Bernie Senensky (p) Gene Perla and Dave Piltch (b), and Terry Clarke (d).

Long available in bits only on bootlegs like the one directly above and below, the Toronto gig has just been officially issued as Unreleased Art Pepper Vol. 10: Toronto. The new three-CD set has been issued with previously unreleased tracks and produced with brilliant sound by Laurie Pepper, the late saxophonist’s wife, on her Widow’s Taste Records. As Laurie writes in the set’s notes about 1977, “the talent, nerve and luck that propelled [Art that year] were stronger than the self-destructive impulses that stymied him.”

In essence, in Toronto, Pepper planted his feet in two decades at once—the frothy West Coast jazz of the 1950s that he helped create and the more wandering abstraction popular in the 1970s. But to be honest, this boxed set seems more like a Pepper visit 20 years back in time to 1957. Maybe his journey back was motivated by nostalgia, or perhaps it’s because he was straight that night, as Laurie points out in her notes. Or perhaps he just felt like taking his young trio on that trip.

The boxed set is dominated by familiar standards—”Long Ago and Far Away,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “All the Things You Are,” “The Summer Knows,” “I’ll Remember April” and “Star Eyes.” All have that late-’50s West Coast optimism, with an avant-garde touch here and there.

The balance of the set consists of trumpeter Joe Gordon’s “A Song for Richard,” an original blues by Pepper called “Blues for Heard” (named for bassist John Heard); and “Samba Mom-Mom,” which Pepper wrote for Laurie (“Mom-Mom”), her “nom de honey-pie,” as Laurie wonderfully put it in her notes. But this last song also is reminiscent of some of the Latin-flavored songs on Pepper’s Mucho Calor album in 1957. There’s also a worthy 33-minute interview with Hal Hill, a Toronto jazz radio show host, a local record store owner and promoter of Canadian jazz concerts.

To quote Laurie:

In a month, Art would conquer the world at the Vanguard. Then he’d go home, and from boredom (or from inertia—he’d been at such a fever pitch), he would nearly kill himself with drugs. He’d wind up in the hospital. He’d even go to jail. But after that, he’d tour the world with his own bands, record dozens of albums, write a hundred tunes, perform a hundred concerts, all of which were great, some of which were just magnificent.

Photo of Art Pepper in 1957 courtesy of Laurie Pepper

Just how magnificent is debatable, depending on one’s favourite Pepper period. What I do know is that in Toronto, Pepper sounded a lot like he did decades earlier—frisky and soulful, surfing the cresting tops of songs with melodic freedom. All of this will be welcome news to Art Pepper fans who treasure his 1950s recordings and music imbued with the open sky.

Art Pepper died in 1982.