There are several Art Pepper boxed sets on the market but none that tried to cover the entire sweep of his checkered career until this one, the fourth in his widow Laurie Pepper's series of Unreleased Art projects for her own label. The three-CD set is thoughtfully divided by disc into three periods -- early Pepper from the cool 1950s, his lost years in the '60s when he spent most of the decade in jail on dope charges, and the final comeback from the mid-'70s until his death in 1982.
Disc One begins with an anomaly, the startling "Art Pepper" from the Stan Kenton Innovations in Modern Music orchestra, with its spooky, swirling dissonant strings and fast-paced brass. This was written and arranged by Pepper's then-best friend, the late Shorty Rogers, whom Laurie Pepper accuses in her liner notes of turning stool pigeon on Pepper, setting up his first drug bust. The rest of the disc is devoted to bop and cool chamber jazz sessions up to 1957, all but the Latinized "Begin the Beguine" of brief length. The selection is not completely representative of the period, for Laurie sidesteps Pepper's most noted albums like Art Pepper + Eleven and Meets the Rhythm Section in favor of lesser-known material from tiny labels like Jazz West, Omegatape, and Tampa, as well as some Savoy and Contemporary sides -- among them his signature supersonic bop workout "Straight Life." No new material here, and these tracks have been already reissued by the big labels, but they do display Pepper's alto in early, prime, relatively domesticated form.
It is in Disc Two that we finally begin to get at the heart of Laurie Pepper's mission -- to put genuine "unreleased Art" before the public. The first six rehearsal tracks , all previously unissued, with a newly-formed quartet are apparently all that has been uncovered from the studio to date from a brief gap in between incarcerations in 1964. Now this is vital transitional stuff, well recorded and well-worth hearing, for the influence of John Coltrane has left its deep mark, and Pepper's flights veer out beyond the constraints of bop changes and structures, willing to sacrifice some of that golden tone to explore the outside. The disc concludes by jumping ahead to 1968 for a bluesy "Chelsea Bridge" from Pepper's brief engagement with the rockish Buddy Rich Big Band (a bonus track from the Mercy, Mercy CD).
In its survey of Pepper's exhaustively documented final period, Disc Three contributes four more unreleased tracks, along with three that were originally released only in Japan where Pepper had become an alto sax icon in absentia during the prison years. Now the fire lit by Coltrane and the prison system has become a magnificent raging blaze, the ballad ("Lost Life") is deeply felt, a throwback to the `50s ("Angel Wings") swings just as effervescently, and there is a long funky number, "Mambo Koyama" (complete with manuscript score in the booklet) that testifies to Pepper's ability to rock out with the best of the funksters of that time.
Although Disc Two offers very short weight at 42 minutes in order to stick to its time frame, this is the most absorbing Unreleased Art project to date, for it illustrates where Pepper was coming from before his last triumphs and attempts to fill the messy gaps between.