Longtime fans of Art Pepper will likely know the circumstances of this series of recordings, but they are worth repeating for newcomers. In 1979, the small Japanese label Yupiteru approached the saxophonist to record several albums of West Coast jazz. Pepper was delighted but faced a predicament: He was under an exclusive contract to another company. His wife Laurie Pepper (ever his collaborator, adviser, and since the 2000s an author and the producer of many fine unreleased recordings on her Widow's Peak label) cleverly suggested he cut the albums as a sideman, and handpick his leaders. It resulted in six albums. While they were compiled in a box after his death, Laurie and Omnivore's Cheryl Pawleski co-produced the re-release of these titles individually. This fourth volume with trombonist Bill Watrous, pianist Russ Freeman, bassist Bob Magnusson, and drummer Carl Burnett was the first session recorded by Yupiteru and is one hell of a lot of fun. It was initially released under Watrous' name under the title Funk 'n Fun. Laurie suggested Freeman for the session, one of Art's oldest friends and musical associates. The rhythm section was part of the saxman's regular band.
The music here is gorgeously recorded and the session is a bona fide swingfest. Opener "Just Friends" is warm, breezy, and full of feeling. The interplay between Pepper and Watrous is effortless and canny. Freeman's solo is a welcome contrast of knotty arpeggios and ostinati. "Begin the Beguine" is delivered Latin-style as Burnett executes syncopated feints and accents on hi-hat and snare while Freeman lays down montunos under the melody. Watrous' solo offers an alternate harmony to Pepper's. He's ever the stylist, using rhythm as a way of extending lyric improvisation. The meaty bassline adds groove as well as heft. Though Pepper wasn't a conventional bebopper, he delivers an intro on "For Art's Sake" that uses it to his own ends and moves into a slightly angular solo that reveals his own sense of force and immediacy. Freeman's punchy chords and solo are deft and extremely creative as they intuit the saxophonist's extrapolation on the form. Speaking of blues, there are two takes of Pepper's "Funny Blues" here that prove Laurie right in her liner notes: The alternate is the better one; it's cleaner, a bit sweeter, and more empathic harmonically.
This wouldn't be an Art Pepper record without ballads and there are two beautiful takes of the standard "Angel Eyes" here. In the first, Magnusson susses out all the pain and heartbreak that Pepper imbues into his solo with devastating impact. "P. Town" is a bright, bumping swinger with Pepper and Watrous engaging in swaggering counterpoint, dovetailing with blazing solos complemented by Freeman, who adds jumping chords, and fills before his own fine break. While the whole series is worth owning, Volume 4 may be the truly essential one, as it captures Pepper relaxed and happy during an amazingly productive time in his life.