In an otherwise mostly self-destructive career, Art Pepper had the good fortune to hook up early on with Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records, who loyally stuck with his troubled alto sax star for over two decades. Then, after Koenig's death in 1977, Pepper caught on with Galaxy until his own passing five years later. Since Fantasy owns both catalogs, the Art Pepper volume in Fantasy's voluminous "Best Of" series covers an unusually and gratifyingly vast span of territory in comparison with most of the other volumes. Beginning with the lead-off track, the ironically named "Smack Up," the CD takes us through Pepper's sporadic yet miraculously fruitful early Contemporary sessions from 1957-60. Now-revered albums like Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section with a team of famous Miles Davis sidemen ("Tin Tin Deo," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To"), the superb Marty Paich-arranged Art Pepper + Eleven ("Move," "Bernie's Tune"), and the Gettin' Together encounter with another Davis rhythm section ("Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," "Gettin' Together") flash by, with Pepper excelling in his '50s hard bop mode on all fronts. The CD then takes a huge leap over the incarcerated years and late Contemporary sessions to 1978 and the Galaxy period. Suddenly, the textures change toward a funky Latin beat on "Mambo Koyama" and a small string section with Howard Roberts' acoustic guitar on "The Prisoner" and "Our Song," with pianist Stanley Cowell and bassist Cecil McBee updating the backing. Pepper's playing becomes crisper, more succinct, more openly emotional and experimental. "Over the Rainbow" closes matters, with Pepper as unsentimental as ever. While there is still a good deal more to be said about the prolific Galaxy years -- and his last project with Koenig, the miles of tapes from the 1977 Village Vanguard gig, is unrepresented -- this well-packed disc contains enough to whet any curious appetite.
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AllMusic Review by Richard S. Ginell