Pepper Adams with The Tommy Banks Trio – Live at Room at the Top
(Cellar Music Group/Reel to Real Recordings. Album review by Sebastian Scotney)
Did the great baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams succeed in transforming the small jazz gig into an art form all his own? Listening to this painstakingly restored and meticulously annotated issue of tapes made for a local radio station in a student bar in Edmonton, Alberta in 1972, it feels very tempting to say he did.
Totally unlike fellow baritonist Gerry Mulligan, who consecrated huge thought and effort into developing his own bands, Pepper Adams was happy to take to the road on his own, and to play with whatever local rhythm section happened to be on offer. That willingness to court the unknown has a defining influence on the way he plays on this live date.
In the first tune, Thad Jones’ “Three and One” (*), we hear the way he dispatches the ‘head’, clearly and purposefully enough…but then (hold on to your horses…) he’s away. Right from the moment he jumps off the edge and starts improvising, the flow of ideas is completely unstoppable. In all, he keeps a whirling maelstrom of invention going for virtually eleven minutes. This extended solo is an unbelievable feat of variety, not to say stamina. He’s gruff, then he’s constructivist, he’s like a babbling brook, and then like a torrent. He’s quoting “Dinah”, or “Tenor Madness”, or letting out an unapologetically loud reed squeak. This tour de force of bebop inventiveness, this one-man throwdown, simply has to be heard.
Finding a place to put all the pent-up energy just gets me musing off-topic… What would have been going through Pepper Adams’ head in the hours and minutes before taking to the stage in Edmonton and launching forth? I can’t help thinking about how (apart from Calgary) all other cities of any size are at least 800km from Edmonton, so any tour including Edmonton might well have involved driving across miles and miles of…er…not very much. And that’s a lot of time and a lot of emptiness in which to make mental preparations for the onslaught we hear. I could, of course, be wrong about all that.
Of rather more relevance are the thoughts of Gary Smulyan in the liner notes. Adams was a mentor to him, and he describes the elder man as “kind, humble, brilliant. He was an expert on Impressionist art, incredibly well-read, a hockey fan, well-rounded, brilliant, intelligent, well-spoken and incredibly funny. A very deep sense of humor. All of that reflected in how he played – all that intelligence and humor came out.”
That roundedness and completeness as a person also come through on this album because the gig doesn’t stand still, it also tells a story. Adams traverses many other moods, and by the time we get to the sixth number, “Time on my Hands”, he has found a spacious and untrammelled way of being, a much more reflective form of creativity. It is as if all that unleashing of boundless energy at the start has served a purpose.
The music stands the test of quality right through, and this local rhythm section is a strong unit. It consists of pianist (and also arranger/conductor) Tommy Banks (1936-2018), who went on in later life to become a senator representing Alberta in the Canadian parliament in Ottawa. There’s a great moment in “Civilisation and its Discontents” where an audience member laughs out loud when Banks quotes “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. We also hear an impressive drummer, Tom Doran, and a dep electric bassist who would never have claimed to be any kind of bassist at all. He was a guitarist and a good friend and close musical associate of Banks’s, Bobby Cairns. His solos are eloquent, even if his timekeeping is a bit intermittent.
The extraordinary story of how this release has happened deserves telling too. 10-inch tapes of gigs at Room at the Top sat in the outside garage of Marc Vasey, the original producer of the gig, in Edmonton, where they survived nearly half a century of cold Albertan winters and warm summers. After the several-hour process of baking and transferring, it turned out, happily, that they really were in very fine condition.
The recording was made at Room at the Top, on the seventh/top floor of the students’ union building of the University of Alberta. And how come it had been recorded at all and at this quality? Because Vasey had somehow managed to persuade a local radio station to pay a fee to broadcast the concerts he promoted that involved international players.
There is another protean force of jazz activism at work here, and that is Cory Weeds. We have covered his achievements and work ethic in more detail HERE. He has masterminded the whole venture, tracking down Marc Vasey and his collection of tapes, commissioning some fascinating texts for the booklet, and seeing this life-giving recording through to its release. Great work. There are apparently more tapes from this treasure-trove to come…
(*) Incidentally, the tune can also be heard in its original, Thad Jones Mel Lewis Orchestra form, with Pepper Adams taking the briefest, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it first solo HERE.