The late saxophonist Jim Pepper remains an enigma for some, a profoundly original player for others, and criminally unknown by most, even those in the jazz listening community. Pepper, who passed away in 1992, was of Native American descent -- Kaw and Creek Indian. He and Larry Coryell were in a band together in 1968, the Free Spirits, who were fooling with jazz and rock before Miles Davis was; indeed, before Tony Williams Lifetime were. Pepper had been using Native American indigenous folk music in his own jazz compositions from the middle of the '60s when he was encouraged to do so by Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. As of 2007, he has no recordings in print in the United States save for this reissue by Wounded Bird of his debut album as a leader. Signed to Atlantic by Herbie Mann, who is listed as executive producer of Pepper's Pow Wow, Pepper set about recording his best known composition, "Witchi-Tai-To," which has been recorded by Ralph Towner and Oregon, Jan Garbarek, Julian Priester, and many others. Assisting Pepper in the studio were, in addition to producer Daniel Weiss, Coryell, alternating bassists Chuck Rainey and Jerry Jemmott, pianist Tom Grant, Spider Rice or Billy Cobham on "drums," and flutist and then wife Ravie Pepper. Because of its clean, immediate production provided by Weiss, Pepper's Pow Wow is as timeless in the 21st century as it was in 1971. The first recording of "Witchi-Tai-To" is here, in its initial rendering as a chant by a religious peyote tribe giving way to a transcendent folk melody that is carried on piano, electric wah wah guitar, shakers, Cobham's tom tom heavy drum kit, and Pepper's vocal before he ever blows a note. Over seven minutes in length, it's moving, beautiful, sweet and very powerful. Pepper understood something of soul music as well as folk and jazz. As the band begins to open itself up, the refrain -- the sung words of the chant in an original melody by Pepper -- becomes hypnotic, full of drifting, lilting flutes lines and some of the most elegant piano Grant ever played. Coryell and Rainey support Pepper to the gate. When Pepper begins to blow, there is so much emotion and celebration packed into his delivery it can still bring chills decades later. This version of the song is, in its way, superior to the version on the excellent Comin' and Goin' album released by Antilles in the '80s with Pepper fronting the Kenny Werner band. If this was the only song on this record and it lasted for 45 minutes it wouldn't be too long. But, as fortune would have it, there is so much more here: "Squaw Song," with gorgeous guitar, flute, and piano work with Jemmott and Rice as the rhythm section provides a different backdrop for Pepper. He sings a chant, and then blows some of the most spiritual and deep soul-jazz saxophone of all time. Rhythm is circular and graceful and Ravie's flute is as compelling as Jim's saxophone work. "Senecas (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow)," written by famed Native American songwriter Peter LaFarge -- who was a profound but often uncredited influence on people like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash -- is a country song (hearing Coryell play country electric guitar and Cobham play that snare and hi hat shuffle is a trip). The tune is narrated by Pepper's father Gilbert "Gib" Pepper. Arif Mardin arranged "Yon a Ho," written by Gib, with Pepper singing and blowing and a huge band behind the group complete with a horn section. It gives way to the "Slow War Dance," done by Pepper and Gib on drums and chants, with Ravie playing flutes. Gib arranged a wild version of the traditional "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder," called here "Nommie Nommie," where Jim blows on tenor and soprano, Grant plays his best honky tonk piano and Coryell offers his own rendition of a simulated steel guitar, but it's got plenty of soul. The entire tune just roils and boils and grooves. The "Newly Wed Song" is haunting, sultry, and utterly beguiling with Ravie's funky C-flute solo, as are the two dance and chant numbers "Fast War Dance" and "Now War Dance," and the LaFarge closer "Drums," another honky tonk burner with Coryell, Jemmott, Grant, and Rice accompanying Pepper. So, while Pepper's Pow Wow is not strictly a jazz record, nor is it a folk record or a rock record, it is something far greater than merely the sum of those things. It is the first recorded articulation for the majority of Americans -- even if they didn't hear it. That it is now available again, on compact disc, it is hoped that those who have been under Pepper's sway since his passing will investigate it, as well as those young people investigating exotic folk forms in the new century and those who have followed the careers of the others involved in making this record. Pepper deserves far more recognition than he received for all that he put in, and still does.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek