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Pepper Adams gets his due on 2 new albums
[March 13, 2011]

Pepper Adams gets his due on 2 new albums

Mar 13, 2011 (Detroit Free Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams was one of Detroit's great post-war jazz exports, emerging from the city's modern jazz explosion in the 1950s to become the dominant voice on his instrument in hard bop circles until his 1986 death from lung cancer at 55.

Adams was known for a ferocious sound that cut through an ensemble like a machete and for a puffed-chest bravura that synthesized bebop virtuosity and tenacious swing with harmonic sophistication and an original melodic voice. Bespectacled, he looked like Clark Kent but played like Superman.

Adams wasn't a major composer, but he was a creative one. He wrote 43 tunes, and each channeled his thoughtful, witty and sometimes idiosyncratic personality. These works remain mostly unplayed and unknown, even among insiders.

Enter Gary Carner -- an Adams expert, creator of and biographer (in progress) -- who is producing five albums featuring new performances of Adams' songbook. The first two volumes of "Pepper Adams: Complete Compositions" ( * * * * out of four stars, offer rich rewards. Volume 1 pairs baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan, a compelling contemporary Adams disciple, with the suave and swinging Chicago trio led by pianist Jeremy Kahn. Kahn's trio with bassist Rob Amster and drummer George Fludas takes care of business on its own in Volume 2 ( * * *).

Adams' compositions suggest a bob-and-weave aesthetic, reshaping common bebop vocabulary and standard forms into fresh structures. You think you know what's coming, but then the music takes a sly turn.

The stair-step sequences on the gently swinging "Ephemera" keep landing on delightfully surprising harmonic turf. The infectious Latin-based "Enchilada Baby" leads into similarly unexpected corners. Sometimes Adams' curlicue asymmetries ("Jirge") recall fellow Detroiter Thad Jones, with whom he worked extensively, and ballads like "Julian" and "I Carry Your Heart" recall the urbane romanticism of Billy Strayhorn.

Kahn and company rise to the material. The melodic integrity and narrative flow, harmonic command, graceful touch and taste that Kahn brings to his solos show up a lot of better-known pianists.

Amster's bass is locked in, and Fludas brings a combination of focused swing and sensitivity ideal for idiom. Smulyan, a fire-breather, gives the quartet date an extra spark, but both albums honor Adams' legacy without a hint of pedanticism. (Available as digital downloads through Amazon, iTunes, CDBaby and others.) It's not easy at this late date to offer an homage to the bebop Prometheus, Charlie Parker, that doesn't sound regressive, self-consciously post-modern or willfully avant-garde. But leave it to saxophonist Joe Lovano to find a way. On "Bird Songs" ( * * *, Blue Note), strategies include transforming flag-wavers into ballads ("Donna Lee"), isolating melodic or rhythmic phrases as building blocks ("Moose the Mooche") and superimposing multiple blues lines on top of each other ("Blues Collage").

On another level, Lovano takes advantage of his limber Us Five quintet, which features drummers Otis Brown III and Francesco Mela alongside pianist James Weidman and bassist Esperanza Spalding. The band's conversational approach, fluttery textures and improvised counterpoint uncover untrampled paths. Lovano's vaporous improvising leads the way, rooted in the melodic, rhythmic implications of the material, but full of allusions, rhymes and apparitions.

Saxophonist Ralph Bowen always has had great command over his instrument and the post-bop mainstream vocabulary. But on "Power Play" ( * * *, Positone), he brings a stronger personal identity and emotional resonance than he sometimes has in the past, paced by an invigorating rhythm section of pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Donald Evans.

On tenor, he airs out his phrases on the driving 16-bar "K.D.'s Blues," and when the expected fireworks arrive, they offer honest excitement. The ballad "My One and Only Love" unfolds in full-throated expression. Bowen's sweet melodic embellishments wink here and there at Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane but mostly sing his own song.

Contact MARK STRYKER: 313-222-6459 or [email protected] To see more of the Detroit Free Press, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2011, Detroit Free Press Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit

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