ART PEPPER: ‘Smack Up’ (Contemporary/Craft Recordings)

  • Home
  • Reviews
  • ART PEPPER: ‘Smack Up’ (Contemporary/Craft Recordings)

Craft Recordings’ exploration of the Contemporary Records’ catalogue continues with this magnificent vinyl reissue of alto saxophonist Art Pepper’s 1960 album, Smack Up, regarded as one of the archetypal examples of West Coast jazz. Starting on clarinet as a boy, Gardenia-born Pepper switched to alto sax as a teenager and began playing in jazz clubs. His exceptional talent quickly got him noticed, resulting in him joining the highly regarded bands of Benny Carter and Stan Kenton before he embarked on a solo path. Pepper joined producer Lester Koenig’s Los Angeles-based Contemporary label in 1957 during a time when his personal life was plagued by drug addiction, alcoholism, and several spells in prison. (Anyone wishing to explore Pepper’s colourful life in more detail should check out his explosive 1980 memoir, Straight Life, which is still in print today). 

As Smack Up vividly reveals, Pepper’s ability to make compelling music didn’t seem to be too badly affected by his demons. Joined by stellar sidemen in the shape of trumpeter Jack Sheldon (who plays both open and muted horn), pianist Pete Jolly, bassist Jimmy Bond, and drummer Frank Butler, Pepper serves up six wonderfully played tracks that range from the vibrantly swinging ‘A Bit Of Basie’ to the bluesy foot-tapping ‘How Can You Lose’ and lively bebop-flavoured Harold Land-penned title tune (whose title is apposite given Pepper’s addiction, as it alludes to heroin). In marked contrast, the soft, subdued track ‘Maybe Next Year’ – one of the set’s highpoints – spotlights Pepper’s prowess as a ballad player, showing that besides possessing a formidable technique, he could also play with a delicate sensitivity when the occasion demanded. 

Shortly after Smack Up hit the record stores, Pepper was incarcerated for the second time; sadly, it was not his last spell in prison as he would find himself behind bars for drug offenses on two more occasions. Consequently, the saxophonist wouldn’t make another studio recording until the late ‘70s, when he made a comeback that lasted until he died in 1982. 

This classic album captures Pepper at the peak of his power, affirming his place alongside Charlie Parker in the pantheon of jazz’s greatest alto saxophonists. Thanks to Bernie Grundman’s impeccable AAA mastering, Smack Up sounds as fresh and vibrant as the day it was recorded 64 years ago. Another exemplary 180-gram audiophile vinyl reissue from Craft Recordings. 

(CW) 4/5