Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Joy Road: Pepper Adams - NYC Jazz Record

Park Adams III already had a pretty great stage
name set in place two generations before his birth.
Pepper works too though. The baritone saxophonist’s
great career has been thankfully getting the attention
it deserves in the last few years. Adams passed away
in 1986, less than a month shy of his 56th birthday
but during that brief life, he managed to be a part of
every major jazz scene of his time, working with the
Detroit scene of the ‘50s, with Mingus in the early
‘60s, the birth of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band,
even the Lighthouse All Stars out on the West Coast.
He was in-demand until his passing, managing to
lug his baritone to over 600 sessions.

Motéma Records with producer Gary Carner
has compiled a five-volume tribute to Adams’ underrecognized
talent as a composer. The recordings
were done mostly in the 25th anniversary of Adams’
passing, covering all 43 of his tunes with bands led
by pianists Jeremy Kahn and Kevin Bales, baritone
saxophonist Frank Basile and vocalist Alexis Cole.

Volume 1 features a piano trio led by Kahn.
They open with “Muezzin”, giving bassist Rob
Amster and drummer George Fludas ample space to
stretch out. The trio works gently and swinging with
Adams’ compositions: “Etude Diabloque” and
“Bossa Nouveau” finds the trio sprinting while “I
Carry Your Heart” gives Kahn plenty of room to roll
up and down the keyboard. “Doctor Deep” gets the
most joyful pummeling with Kahn digging into the
quartal bag.

Volume 2 features Bales in a straightahead
quartet amped by guitarist Barry Greene. The latter
blasts off early, strutting over “Cindy’s Tune” but
Bales is no slouch keeping up the pace, trembling on
the low-end with precision. The band maintains the
high energy throughout their set with a bouncing
“Mary’s Blues” and the high harmonies of
“Apothegm”, slowing down only for the graceful
“Lovers of the Their Time”.

Volume 3 finally brings some horns with Basile’s
baritone-driven sextet. Trumpeter Joe Magnarelli
and trombonist John Mosca bring a rich, bellowing
frontline to the band. The bombastic “What Is It”
tests the limits of the hornmen’s embouchure while
“Joy Road” has an effervescent swing that provides
a nice platform for Mosca’s breathless rip. They close
out their disc with a striding ballad, imbuing “Urban
Dreams” with a sound as ethereal as the title.

Volume 4 brings back the Kahn trio with a boost
from baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. He is in
top form, providing rapid-fire Adams-like lines
throughout the set. The lengthy “Patrice” and
“Hellure” gets swinging turns from Smulyan and
Kahn before trading popping phrases with drummer
George Fludas. The Strayhorn-esque “Julian” slows
the pulse while “Jirge” is a playful, labyrinthine
performance by the two leads.

Volume 5 is the most curious. Here lyrics have
been set to Adams’ tunes by poet Barry Wallenstein.
It’s always a delicate task of adding lyrics to a tune
long after the composer has passed. The group plays
it safe by sticking to the ballad repertoire. Vocalist
Alexis Cole gives very pure, straightforward
readings of the tunes, handling Wallenstein’s puzzles
with ease. Despite the addition of a vocalist, the
band still manages to stretch out on the tunes, with
the aforementioned “Julian” more upbeat and
building to nearly 11 minutes with help from the
horn crew. The set closes with an elegant duet
between Kahn and Cole on “I Carry Your Heart”.

The result of these five volumes is an
unbelievably thorough tribute to a saxophone
master. Clocking in at over five hours the box can get
a little overwhelming but it is for a worthy pursuit,
bringing a legend to the spotlight. It might be a
strange place to start for someone unfamiliar with
Adams’ work but its mere existence will do a lot to
increase awareness of the overlooked baritone saxist.

Joy Road @ NYC Jazz Record

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