The third volume of Omnivore Records' Art Pepper bootleg series, Neon Art showcases the legendary jazz saxophonist performing live while on tour in Japan in 1981. Having gone through rehab for an infamous heroin addiction, a process that also led him to meeting his wife, manager, and support system, Laurie Pepper (who produced the Neon Art series), Pepper was at the tail-end of a career upswing during this period and died a mere seven months after these recordings were captured. Nonetheless, as with most of his recordings in the '70s and '80s, Pepper plays with a joyful, unhinged passion on all three of the tracks featured here. Joining Pepper on this Japan tour was what would be his last, and perhaps best rhythm section with pianist George Cables, bassist David Williams, and drummer Carl Burnett. An adept, highly gifted musician, Cables had an empathetic ear for Pepper's playing and knew exactly what he wanted, pushing the saxophonist on the more uptempo pieces and framing Pepper's mournful tone with lush, measured phrasing on the ballads. In part, it is this kind of thoughtful group interplay that makes these recordings such a transfixing listen. Primarily, however, it's Pepper's unfettered, soulful improvisation that draws you in. An icon of West Coast cool jazz, by the '70s Pepper had busted down the stylistic walls of his playing, incorporating a more aggressive approach influenced by John Coltrane. Spurred on by his own restless creativity and gigantic musical appetite, Pepper wrote bluesy, gospel-inflected songs like the album opener here, "Make a List (Make a Wish)," and the slow-burn "Arthur's Blues." And yet, at his core, he remained a fragile romantic, ever capable of breaking your heart with a few well-placed notes, as he does on "Everything Happens to Me."
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar