Of all the horns that are associated with jazz, none occupies a more perplexing place than the baritone saxophone. It is essential to the success of a large ensemble: A big band without a great sax section is doomed to mediocrity, and a sax section without a great bari player can not be great. Would Ellington’s band have sounded the same without Harry Carney? How about Woody Herman without Serge Chaloff or Thad Jones-Mel Lewis without Pepper Adams?
Why is the list of baritone saxophonists who have made their mark as soloists so maddeningly short? Look at any grade school’s music program. You’ll find a million alto and tenor players, and very few bari players. Often as not, the school’s band director had to cajole an alto or tenor player into switching over just to have a complete section. (I know this first-hand. My 16 year old son is one such convert.) Bari players are greatly outnumbered by all the other instrumentalists. And, in a way, it’s understandable. Have you ever tried schlepping one of those beasts around?
Another reason might be that, unlike other horns that are typically heard in jazz, the majority of the baritone’s range lies outside the human voice. Perhaps that makes it less attractive to beginners. In any event, there have been just enough baritone sax soloists through the years to have left a legacy of great music. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to play with one of them: Pepper Adams.
How Many Miles?
My gig with Pepper Adams is well chronicled in Gary Carner’s forthcoming book, Joy Road, but here are the Cliffs Notes. Tim Horner, the great drummer (and my old pal), took advantage of a connection that he had in Singapore (an ex-girlfriend, to be exact) and wangled a gig for us at a jazz festival there. It paid enough that he was able to hire a “name,” and Pepper was his choice.
Tim, bassist Ed Howard, and I were all in our twenties, and Pepper was in his fifties, in the twilight of his outstanding career. I oscillated between youthful arrogance and sheer terror at the prospect of sharing the stage with him. It was supposed to have been a tour, with dates in Japan and Indonesia, but they all evaporated, except the date in Singapore. It was a long way to go for one gig: about thirty-six hours from New York. For me, though, it was well worth it.
Pepper was friendly enough to his fresh-faced, smart-assed rhythm section, but he was borderline curmudgeonly when things displeased him. The two things that I remember were not being paid in American dollars before the gig, and a perceived dragging of the tempo on “A Child Is Born.” On the former, Adams threatened not to perform. On the latter, Adams pointedly suggested that the tempo stay where he had set it, before counting off the next tune.
Most of the concert, though, featured Pepper the Badass, the one we all know and love. He was tossing off some amazing, long lines of eighth and sixteenth notes, all with that in-your-face sound. The concert was a success. They loved Pepper. We made the tiresome journey home. I never saw Pepper again after that.
While living in Chicago, I’ve had the opportunity to play many times with Ron Kolber, the local patriarch of the bari sax. He enjoyed a close relationship with Pepper, and he very kindly offered to give me copies of about twenty Pepper tunes (written in Pepper’s own hand) that he had acquired. I accepted, of course, and gladly added them to my personal library. Every jazz player welcomes the chance to add to his repertoire a bunch of well-written tunes that are seldom played by anyone else.
Upon learning, right around this same time, that Gary Carner’s first book on Pepper was soon to be published, I passed this thought on to Gary: Why not promote the book by producing a CD of Pepper tunes, featuring someone very much along the lines of me? (That’s something else that every jazz player welcomes: The chance to go into a recording studio under the financial auspices of somebody else.) To my delight (and palpable surprise), he agreed to it. At Gary’s request, my contribution would be in the form of a piano trio.
Not a Drive through Wine Country
The next step in the process would be to familiarize myself with these tunes well enough so I could play them comfortably. Not to “dis” Pepper, but I found that they didn’t flow as easily as tunes by, say, Jerome Kern or Kenny Dorham or Antonio Carlos Jobim or Wayne Shorter, at least as far as my own facilities were concerned. I got the feeling that many of Adams’ melodies had arisen from lines that he might have played in a solo and was pleased enough to fashion a composition around, kind of like Charlie Parker in that way. And remember, Pepper was a quirky and idiosyncratic player, so it makes sense that his compositions would be too. This means that, as tricky as they are to play on the sax, they’re even trickier on other instruments (like piano, for example).
Aside from the melodies, the other important aspect for me to consider was the relative ease (or difficulty) with which the chord changes flow, because that’s what the soloist is dealing with during the bulk of the performance. Pepper’s chord changes, while obviously well thought out, take a lot of twists and turns that deliver you to some unexpected destinations. If you’re not comfortable playing rapidly changing chords in tonal centers less traveled, you’re going to be in deep “doo-doo.” Or, as Jaki Byard used to say, it will be obvious if “you’re lying on those changes.” Pepper’s tunes deserve better than to be skated through. They are masterworks, written by one of jazz’s greats, containing rock-solid ideas and a unique, lyrical individualism, albeit wrapped in challenging frameworks.
Challenges are good, though. That’s why Bird and Diz occasionally practiced out of oboe method books. Passages that are meant for other instruments will likely be awkward on your own, and successful navigation will make you a better player. Feeling somewhat secure on Pepper’s tunes was a gratifying feeling, because they were nothing if not challenging.
Be careful what you wish for, right? My next step was to deal with this stack of Pepperabilia and come up with cogent, coherent, playable, and enjoyable piano trio arrangements. To my mind, there were a couple of fine lines to be negotiated. First, I knew I wasn’t re-inventing the wheel. I wanted to be faithful and respectful of Pepper’s intentions by playing his tunes fairly close to the spirit in which they were written.
There was one notable exception. “Doctor Deep,” a jazz waltz, gave me artistic constipation. I just couldn’t get anything going with it. I decided to give the tune a totally new set of chord changes, and morphed it into a McCoy Tyneresque Afro-Cuban kind of thing. Forgive me, O Ghost of Pepper’s Past.
I also didn’t want to be a rubber stamp of previously recorded versions. So I dressed them up with some new intros, tags, and background figures, and I also tweaked a few of Pepper’s original tempos. I wrote all of these arrangements over the course of a couple of weeks, while sitting in the orchestra pit, waiting for my steady gig of the Broadway musical “Wicked” to begin. The result filled my head with a very unusual combination of music. Pepper Adams and Stephen Schwartz: Now that’s an odd couple worthy of Neil Simon!
The other fine line was negotiating the writing versus “blowing” conundrum. You can listen to a jazz record with the sense that the music is so controlled and pre-determined, that any sense of unencumbered improvisation is all but snuffed out. The other end of the spectrum is when you sense that things are so loose, that it seems like no serious preparation has been given to the music. Either way results in an unsatisfying experience for the consumer. My solution was to make sure that the written aspects of the music stayed within my decided parameter of doing the dates without benefit of rehearsal. For this to succeed, it was crucial to have the right personnel.
Bring in the Stunt Rhythm Guys: Rob Amster and George Fludas
Before this session, the only time we had played together as a trio was when we were brought in to comprise the rhythm section on a horn player’s recording date. The challenging part was the fact that we were laying down tracks to some big band arrangements before the rest of the band was scheduled to record their parts. This was hard, because, without being able to hear what the fully realized music sounded like, we were asked to create something in a vacuum. I thought we did a good job with it, though, and I felt like the three of us established a strong musical rapport.
Drummer George Fludas won me over some years back when we were playing together at a jazz salon kind of thing. We’d play for some rich patron of the arts, then answer questions and expound on the state of jazz and the creative process, then play some more. Someone asked George what was his favorite music to play, and he responded, “Ballads.” It blew my mind to hear a drummer give that answer because ballads don’t present drummers the chance to show off all their party tricks. You’ll often see young drummers roll their eyes when a ballad is called, because they really don’t know what to do. George clearly does. He can play convincingly in all jazz styles because his musical vocabulary covers an astounding range. He has been asked to make music with Ray Brown, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Milt Jackson, Eric Alexander, and Diana Krall, just to name a few. Mainly, though, he swings his ass off. We’re extremely lucky that he lives in Chicago, and I’m very grateful that he was available for this session. His presence added more than I can say.
Bassist Rob Amster and I have played a ton of gigs over the years, from wedding bands to jazz clubs. I remember that (shortly after I moved back to Chicago from New York in 1993) while we were setting up to play our first gig together, he took a look at my somewhat antiquated electric keyboard and started laughing at me. That was how Rob welcomed me to town, and it still gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling when I recall it. He is surely one of the only bassists to have played in Buddy Rich’s band to emerge un-fired. (Buddy went to The Big Crash Cymbal in the Sky before he had a chance.) Rob also had a stint in Maynard Ferguson’s band, but his main gig, over the last few years, has been to tour the world with vocalist Kurt Elling, an intensely creative endeavor.
Amster does what great bass players do: He can take the music to surprising and wonderful places, or he can just lay it down and make sure that things are simply locked in and swinging hard. He picks good spots for knowing what muscles to flex. He never mails it in, and he’s one of my all-time favorite bass players because he’s always reaching and challenging. I’ve done some of my best playing due to his on-the-bandstand motivating. I was thrilled to be able to record with him in this trio setting.
You will, however, find one non-trio tune on this recording. We invited tenor saxophonist Eric Schneider to join us on “Beaubien” as a special guest. Eric is one of a diminishing breed of sax players who can acknowledge in his playing that there was music before 1960. In fact, he can play in styles that go WAY back! But, whatever kind of music he’s playing, Eric’s flawless time, limitless ideas, and his ability to inject humor into his playing have always inspired me.
We’ve tried to do justice to Pepper Adams and his compositions. I hope that these tunes provide you with an enjoyable listening experience.