Music in general, jazz in particular, and notably baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams all had a breakthrough year in 1957. Given his New Star award in Down Beat magazine's critics poll and much acclaim working with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Adams left Detroit that year for important recording sessions on both the East and West Coasts. Teamed here with musicians based in the Los Angeles area, Adams proved as adept at hard bop as with the cool school sound the California jazzmen had established. Two dates from the summer of 1957 (Pepper Adams Quintet for the Mode label and Critics' Choice from Pacific Jazz) feature drummer Mel Lewis on all the cuts, with help from pianists Carl Perkins or Jimmy Rowles, Kenton trumpeters Stu Williamson or Lee Katzman, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and on the second assemblage fellow Detroiter bassist Doug Watkins. The result is a solid collection of standards and compositions from emerging Motor City jazzmen Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Thad Jones, and Adams. The distinguished sound of the baritone makes for an intriguing partnership alongside the brass of Williamson or Katzman. Five tracks with the Perkins/Williamson combine produced the calypso to hard bop "Muezzin'," with a singing trumpet followed by baritone, and "Freddie Froo," a hard bopper based on the same batting order, both originals by the leader. A spry version of the usually mundane "Unforgettable," a frantic, wow factor-saturated take of "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," and the tender, deep, and mellow "My One and Only Love" round out the first session. Katzman plays very well, trumping his relatively little-known status on three of the next eight tracks. He's excellent taking the lead on Flanagan's now legendary "Minor Mishap," adds to the breezy cool of "High Step" from the pen of Harris, and assists the band in bright, inventive, and adroit 4/4 to 3/4 time changes during the Thad Jones number "5021." Rowles in particular consistently stands out for his inserted solo segments on "5021," and manhandles the other Thad Jones contribution, a furious flyer titled "Zec," in a way original boppers Charlie Parker and Miles Davis would be envious of. His piano leads are simply elegant and refined on two more originals written by Adams: on the bluesy "Four Funky Folk" (originally on the World Pacific LP Blowin' the Blues) and especially during his feature on "Blackout Blues." Of course, Mel Lewis is the consummate professional with every swinging note. But the star here is Adams, emerging with brimming confidence and a solid concept beyond his peers and influences, and exhibiting a style that perfectly reflects his highly intelligent, dry, quick-witted, and fluid personality. For fans and students of the big horn, this is a homework project, and a testament to one of the greatest players of all time on his instrument.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos