‘Art at his most transcendent pushing at the edges of his inspiration.’

Omnivore Recordings

Art Pepper (alto saxophone); George Cables (piano); David Williams (bass); Carl Burnett (drums)

Recorded August 1981 for three nights at the Maiden Voyage Club, Los Angeles

42 performances, with 23 of them previously unissued.

In August of 1981, alto saxophonist Art Pepper and his quartet played 11 sets over three consecutive nights at Maiden Voyage, a Japanese-owned jazz club in Los Angeles that operated from 1979 to 1983. The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings includes 42 performances, with 23 of them previously unissued.

Art’s playing can be divided into three sections. The first phase dates from his time starting with Stan Kenton in the 1940s and then freelance work until the 1960s. The second was from the 1960s until the mid-seventies, that period was taken up with time in prison and struggling musically to deal with the influence of John Coltrane. The third was from approximately 1975 until his death.

Jazz has produced a number of flawed heroes. The story of Art Pepper is one of the most astounding in jazz: brilliant soloist, thief, addict, paranoiac, criminal, drug pusher, sometime hero. The music here and elsewhere transcends all that and much of the music exists because of the efforts of Laurie Pepper and from their meeting at Synanon in the sixties where she began nurturing Art through one of the great last chapters in a jazz life. In the book, ‘A Straight Life’ written with Laurie Pepper, Art bared his soul and then some. In his playing he does the same. The ferocious honesty is present in the book and the playing.

The album notes are written by Laurie Pepper. She is abrasive and recounts unflinchingly some of the incidents that scarred Art. The possessiveness and the urge to protect Art are ever present. Some of her comments act as an adjunct to the book that she wrote with Art. Her literary skill illuminates the notes and act as a backdrop to the music.

When the music was first recorded producer Ed Michel gave the cassettes to Art and asked him to write his thoughts on each of the pieces. It was not a task that Art found easy, acting as his own critic. The results in Art’s own handwritten notes are in the sleeve notes. Some of them are brutally honest and the others are Illuminating.

Laurie explains in the book ‘Straight Life’ and in the notes to the recordings here, how she chose carefully the musicians that Art worked with. She was particularly pleased with the Maiden Voyage band. ‘These guys flew together, walked and rode together, shopped and ate together, went through all the aches and pains and mornings after, the bad hotels, bad transportation, gruelling schedules and they played together every night, no matter what. This band was tight.’

George Cables was one of Art’s favourite pianists. George enjoyed working with Art. After the dates at the Maiden Voyage, they made some duets which are among the best work of both men. Cables said, ‘Art used to give me a lot of freedom, and I used to take it! I enjoyed playing with him. One thing is, he taught me how to play a ballad. He showed me how to slow down. Because a lot of times, everybody wants to ‘double up’ when you play a ballad, ‘Double up! Don’t play slow, double up!’ I’d get so nervous about playing so slow, I didn’t want to wait that long! But Art played ballads so beautifully, I just kind of fell in with him. I had to, you know! ‘Over the Rainbow’ for one. ‘Everything Happens to Me’. He’d like to play ‘Goodbye”’.

Bassist David Williams left Trinidad to join his sister at the London College of Music in 1962 where he studied bass with a musician from the London Symphony Orchestra. A two-week trip to New York lead to him staying around and eventually securing jobs with Elvin Jones, Ornette Coleman and Art Pepper.

Carl Burnett worked solidly with Art on their extensive tours and Art approved of his playing and would insist on Carl for prestigious studio recordings. Whether it was Cables or Milcho Leviev, Burnett knew how to work successfully with the pianists.

The warhorse tunes are present: ‘Donna Lee’ three times and ‘Allen’s Alley’ twice. These are difficult pieces designed to ward off the unwary. It is probably true to say that Art’s articulation, occasionally, is not quite what it was.

Art’s playing of sambas is always a revelation and there are a number here. Samba seems to force Art on to new ways of playing away from his mainstream choices. Williams enjoys supplying the different rhythm. Carl Burnett fires and is fired by the rhythm. As the pieces develop Art gets wilder until he hands over to George Cables. George can play anything, fit anywhere, and he sneaks in West Indian rhythms.

‘Everything Happens To Me’ is a theme made for Art. There is a sympathetic accompaniment from George Cables. Art glides through the tune before he starts the embellishments that emphasise the melancholy, the pain. The urgency to express the anguish is there as the alto picks out the notes before almost reaching a screech. The wayward highs and lows of the alto are explored. George Cables is beautifully expressive, tempering the self-pitying mood.

‘But Beautiful’ is a Cables Pepper duet. It is a foretaste of the two albums ‘Goin Home’ and ‘Tete a Tete’ that they would record in a few months’ time just before Art’s death in June 1982. At first, the notes are acrid and almost abstract. This wasn’t Art proving anything, he was where he wanted to be with a pianist he loved and trusted. The influence of Cables’ thought and his exquisite touch is moving. From both men this is jazz at its finest: coruscating and searing.

‘Landscape’ there are two versions, the longest is on the third disc. It is Art at his most transcendent, pushing at the edge of his inspiration, almost destroying the logic of his playing. Was this the one where he wrote: ‘This is worth the whole night’?

The timeless ‘Arthur’s Blues’ with Art, leaning back on the rhythm and the accompaniment by George Cables. This is music for the ages that will be listened to for decades with pleasure. The space in the Cables’ solo is dramatic, his timing is razor sharp as he shapes a solo different from Art’s but just as profound. Williams explores his bass emphasising the depths and resonance. Art in his own notes writes: ‘My whole life went into this’.

You go to the Maiden Voyage recordings to enjoy the playing of Art Pepper and you end up, in addition, captivated, enjoying and valuing the subtlety and artistry of George Cables. ‘The Penguin Guide to Jazz’ dismisses Cables as ‘a journeyman’, how wrong they were. What a journey.

These recordings are an astonishing document. It is high art, with playing ranging from beauty, to rage, to ecstasy, a testament towards the end of his life.

Produced for release by Laurie Pepper and Cheryl Pawelski, The Complete Maiden Voyage Recordings (eight hours and twenty minutes) includes all of the chat and announcements from the band’s three-night stand. The 44-page booklet features photos, Pepper’s original, handwritten notes and commentary, ephemera, and a new essay from Laurie Pepper telling Art’s story.

Click here to read Jack Kenny’s interview with Laurie Pepper talking about the Maiden Voyage sessions.