The Clarinet Music Of Art Pepper-In A Mellow Tone

The Clarinet Music Of Art Pepper-In A Mellow Tone

The very first jazz clarinet solo to capture my attention was an Art Pepper solo on Duke Ellington’s composition In A Mellow Tone, on a recording called Goin’ Home (Galaxy GXY 5143, 1982).  Art duets on this entire recording with Mr. Beautiful, pianist George Cables.  I remember reading Straight Life, Art’s autobiography, around this time, and I remember I went out and bought a couple of his LP’s to check out his music.  I remember I had this duo record and a compilation two LP set that had some early Art on it—on that set there is a beautiful version of Bewitched that my mom loved.  Art’s melodic sense on these early recordings really killed me, and his pretty West Coast alto sound made a huge impression on me.  When I discovered this version on the duo record of In a Mellow Tone with Art on clarinet, I was stunned by how perfectly fashioned this solo was.  I knew literally almost nothing about jazz or jazz clarinet at this point, but this solo stuck with me, haunting me for literally decades.  It is the single most influential recording that made me want to play jazz on the clarinet, and it lead me down so many different avenues of jazz clarinet improvisation, and jazz studies in general, that I can say that it profoundly changed and informed my musical life forever.

A few years later, while a student at San Francisco State, I found a CD copy of this record, which I still have.  I continued to pour over this track, and for years let it seep into my ears subliminally.  I found that I could sing along with the clarinet solo, and knew every note that the two of them played together.  While the alto saxophone sound of Art Pepper was certainly interesting and beautiful to me, I found that it was his clarinet playing that seemed to speak to me the most.  I began to sift through many of his recordings for the odd track that I could find that featured him on clarinet.  Over the years I would learn that while there were not a lot of clarinet tracks in in his total recorded output, what was there was well worth hearing and learning from, and that the essence and soulfulness in his music was often more dramatically revealed in his clarinet playing, particularly in his later years when he returned to the clarinet after the difficulties he experienced, survived and lived through.

One can find the Art Pepper Wikipedia site here…..https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_Pepper.  Over the years I have been able to learn more about Art’s music and life in general—that his first instrument was the clarinet, and that he loved Benny Goodman.  It makes perfect sense to me; I am able to hear the early swing influences in his playing, and I see that he certainly loved Lester Young’s music and solo’s.  His recorded work with Warne Marsh provides a great example of Lester’s influence on both Warne and Art.  Have a listen to the wonderful version of Tickle Toe that they recorded in the late 1950’s on Art Pepper with Warne Marsh on Contemporary Records; that track swings so hard that it just about jumps off the recording.  Lester’s influence is undeniable on both Art Pepper and Warne, and we certainly know that Warne was a total Lester freak and literally knew and played all of Lester’s solo’s.  It is my belief that there absolutely was a mutual respect and cross pollination between Art and Warne over the years.  It is a revelation to hear the amazing new CD that Laurie Pepper, Art’s wife, put out recently—Live At Donte’s, Unreleased Volume 9—of Art and Warne playing together in 1977…….you may purchase this recording at CDBaby here…….https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/artpepper26.  This is a fabulous must have item for fans of either Art or Warne.

About ten years I ago I finally learned this In A Mellow Tone solo from Goin’ Home note for note from the recording by ear.  I had been playing it daily for some five years before I finally wrote it out, and I have many of my students learn it, both by ear and from this transcription of mine.  The solo is now so ingrained in my musical personality that I can play it note for note after not having heard it or played it for months.  This is truly a gem of a solo and the interplay between Art Pepper and George Cables is a marvel to behold.  While Art’s note choice is very inside the chord changes, his unique phrasing and sense of time propel this solo.  I love the high A that he pops out in the second chorus.  This recording was made in May of 1982, and Art passed on a month later.  I can’t help but think he knew he was “Goin’ Home” very soon, and to me there truly is a sense of melancholy in this musical statement.  It is profound in it’s simplicity and meaning, not something to be taken lightly.  He had returned to his roots with the clarinet for some of the final musical statements of his career, which to me says a lot about his feeling for the clarinet.  I found this statement of his on an mp3 that I bought, I believe on iTunes….

“A few people have asked me about if I would play this clarinet. I used to be able to play it years and years ago, but it’s like an instrument that’s just been forgotten about.  Some people probably wish I had forgotten about it, but you know I’ve decided I want to learn how to play it, so I hope I do a good job.”

Above comments from Art Pepper_talk_clarinet.mp3

This is the first of several posts that will examine the clarinet music of Art Pepper.  I hope you will download the pdf and take the time to listen to the recording and play along with it.  Be sure to check out the fours that they trade at the end!!

It is my intention to write individual posts for several of the Art Pepper clarinet solo’s that I have transcribed, complete with analysis and background commentary.  I have spoken to Laurie Pepper in the past about possibly doing a book of transcriptions of these solo’s, but so far Laurie has not shown much interest.  It is my hope that these posts will shine some new bright light on an aspect of Art Pepper and his recordings, and that I can reintroduce you all to what a truly great jazz clarinetist Art Pepper was.  Future posts will feature his solo on Anthropology from Art Pepper Plus Eleven, Avalon from Unreleased Volume 5, and maybe his greatest solo, When You’re Smiling, from his recording Road Game.  Yes, Art Pepper was a masterful clarinetist, and while known primarily for his work on alto saxophone, he certainly had a lot to offer when he played the clarinet.  It has a been an amazing learning experience for me to examine what he left behind for us with his gift for melody and improvisation on the clarinet.

I hope you enjoy this solo as much as I have.  Here is the transcription for you to savor…..

Thanks for your interest……Markos

In A Mello Tone

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