The Complete Works of Pepper Adams

  From June 2006 through June 2007, all 42 of Pepper Adams’ compositions were recorded by four different ensembles. Each of these recording sessions resulted in a CD of tunes. During the summer of 2011 in Chicago, Volume 5 was recorded by the Jeremy Kahn Sextet, featuring saxophonists Pat LaBarbera and Eric Alexander and vocalist Alexis Cole. All seven of Pepper’s ballads were performed, with new lyrics written for the date by Barry Wallenstein. This album features five Kahn arrangements that transform Adams ballads into other styles. Volume 6, recorded during Easter Weekend in 2013, showcases newly commissioned big-band arrangements of ten Adams’ compositions. As performed by the University of Illinois Concert Jazz Band, each track features solos by Chicago heavyweights, such as Jim Pugh and Chip Stephens.


Me and the Night and the Music

Pepper Adams (1930-1986) is universally regarded as one of the most influential baritone saxophone soloists in jazz history and arguably the most influential baritone player of his era, but his legacy as a composer has been largely overlooked. The purpose of this box set is to bring attention to Adams’ collected works, highlighting his ballads in particular, that have been set to song on Volume 5 herein, for the first time.

For those new to Pepper Adams, it may seem strange that one of the greatest baritone saxophonists in history is nearly an underground figure. Certainly, musicians of his generation were very much aware of Adams’ command as a soloist and his value as a section player. Throughout his remarkable career Adams performed with many of the greatest jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Wardell Gray, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, and Oscar Pettiford. As a sideman and leader Adams recorded with Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Tommy Flanagan, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Kenny Clarke, and Mel Lewis, among many others. Adams was the first-call baritone saxophonist for Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones, Donald Byrd, Phil Woods, Jimmy Heath, Thelonious Monk, Duke Pearson, Charles Mingus, and Elvin Jones, and he served as Harry Carney’s designated backup in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. By the time of his death Adams had recorded twenty albums as a leader and some 600 dates as a sideman.

As a soloist, Adams’ enduring legacy is how he elevated the baritone saxophone to the level of all other solo instruments. Adams’ blinding speed, penetrating timbre, immediately identifiable sound, harmonic ingenuity, precise articulation, confident time-feel, dramatic use of dynamics, and the utilization of melodic paraphrase (often for comedic effect) make him one of jazz’s great post-war stylists, a model to which all current baritone saxophonists aspire.

Simply put, Pepper Adams liberated the baritone saxophone, as Jimmy Blanton did for the bass and J. J. Johnson did for the trombone. Thanks to Adams’ innovations, it is now far more common to hear the baritone saxophone — a formerly cumbersome, low-pitched instrument — played with a rhythm section than it was in Adams’ time. Yet, despite Adams’ influence on his instrument, his extremely advanced harmonic and melodic concept, his participation on many of jazz’s seminal recordings, and his place among the ranks of great virtuosos in the history of jazz, he is still not awarded the status of a major jazz figure that he rightfully deserves, and, unlike Blanton and Johnson, Adams is still marginalized in textbooks and jazz histories.

Adams’ playing and composing are the yin and yang of his musical genius — where virtuosity meets sensuality. Adams wrote his tunes as vehicles for his playing, and his compositions are as unique as his approach to the baritone saxophone. The hallmark of Adams compositions, particularly the later ones, is chord changes that go to unexpected places, unlike progressions typically found in the standard jazz repertoire. Also, Adams liked to situate elevenths and thirteenths within his melody lines and notate basic chord symbols. This subtle compositional approach may give an unsuspecting musician the false impression that Adams’ tunes are old-fashioned, but that’s not the case, and Adams knew exactly what he was doing. Adams utilized this technique as a clever way to avoid overwhelming a less than accomplished rhythm section with complicated chords, not knowing what he would find from town to town when traveling the world as a soloist.

Beginning with his earliest compositions, “Apothegm,” “A Winters Tale,” “Witches Pit,” and “Mary’s Blues” (recorded in 1956-57), Pepper Adams mostly wrote tunes for his own recording dates (some during session breaks) over a 21-year stretch. Starting in 1977, however, after he left the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra to tour the world as a soloist, Adams spent a lot of time at home in Brooklyn, crafting a new collection of beautiful, small-group originals that he could take with him on the road. During the period 1977-1983, in fact, Adams wrote nearly one half of his 43 compositions. Adams’ oeuvre can be loosely grouped into the following categories: Swingers (18), Blues (7), Ballads (7), Latin (5), Waltzes (3), and Rhythm Changes (3). Possibly the most idiomatic of all is his body of gorgeous ballads, though Adams considered his gracefully swinging tune Ephemera to be his greatest composition.

My interest in Pepper Adams as a topic of inquiry began late in the 1982-83 academic year while I was enrolled in a jazz studies program at City College of New York. My course work that year had included two semesters of independent study under the direction of Barry Wallenstein, a gifted poet who had done a series of jazz poetry recordings. Wallenstein had learned from me that I was interested in writing a biography of a jazz musician, so he assigned me a multiplicity of writing projects in order to sharpen my prose skills.

In May 1983, Barry suggested that I apply to City’s graduate English program starting that Fall. I was intrigued with his suggestion, and asked him if interviewing a jazz musician and developing it into an oral history would satisfy the requirements of my masters thesis. “Of course!” Wallenstein replied. “It’s literature.” So, a few months later, I began the two-year program, pleased that I could stay at least to some degree engaged with jazz while studying Shakespeare, Woolf, literary criticism, etc. The musician I chose for my thesis topic was Pepper Adams.

In the summer of 1984, I had the good fortune of meeting Adams, who at the time was suffering with a serious leg injury that had kept him incapacitated and house-bound for six months. We met at regular intervals that summer, taping interviews about his extraordinary career. In his exceptionally articulate manner, Adams spoke in depth about his early days, his various recordings, and his experiences with some of the great musicians of his time. Although I had all the information needed for my thesis, I felt that with some additional work, we would have the material for a terrific co-written book. Seven months later, however, on tour in Sweden, Adams was diagnosed with lung cancer. For the next two years he would undergo exhausting medical treatments yet still continue to perform, until he was too weak to keep his commitments. Consequently, we saw each other sporadically, mostly catching up on the telephone.

Without his active participation, the project took a different turn. After graduating from City College in 1985, I moved to Boston to study with Lewis Porter and pursue a Ph.D. Under Porter’s tutelage I focused on the discographical and musicological aspects of Adams’ work and began the intense research necessary to assess forty years of recordings. I listened closely to Adams’ playing and studied his oeuvre of 43 compositions, many scattered about on obscure LPs produced by even more obscure labels both in the U.S. and abroad. I began to interview Pepper’s colleagues and I received a contract from the Smithsonian Institution to write Adams’ biography.

Most importantly, however, was something told to me by Adams’ closest friend, pianist Tommy Flanagan, something that changed my life. Tommy told me that while visiting Adams (just four days before his death), he saw my manuscript — 300 pages of interview material — on Pepper’s nightstand. Flanagan told me that Adams was very frail, lapsing in and out of a coma. But once, when he came to, Pepper tried feebly to nudge with his fingers the stack of material in Tommy’s direction, as if to draw attention to it and give it weight. Adams wanted this material to survive him after his death, and Flanagan made sure that I was aware of it. Then and there, as the power of Flanagan’s story washed over me, with my eyes brimming with tears, I knew that I would dedicate my life to preserving Adams’ legacy.

It’s now 26 years later and Adams has become a crusade, my life’s purpose. I’ve collated his papers, his work. My first book about him, Pepper Adams’ Joy Road: An Annotated Discography, has been published for simultaneous release with this collection, and I’m well along on his full-length biography. But what about his amazing but overlooked compositions? I had done the work to unearth them, but what was to be done with my discovery?

About seven years ago I had an epiphany. A saxophonist in Chicago, Ron Kolber, told me that Pepper had sent him many of his lead sheets three weeks before he passed away. Adams had told Kolber to “Protect them with your life!” and, fortunately, he did. Maybe I should produce a CD of Pepper tunes? That seemed appropriate. But one night, while ruminating at the Village Vanguard, it hit me: “All of them!” I concluded. One recording wouldn’t be enough. “It’s about the legacy,” I remembered. I’d have to record all of the tunes.

Sure enough, during 2006 and 2007 I pursued my dream of producing a complete collection of Adams’ compositions. In my new role as a record producer, I organized four recording sessions in Chicago, Brooklyn, and Tallahassee. I hired the leaders and arrangers, handpicked the musicians, chose the studios and engineers, and carefully assigned the tunes so that each disc would present as many facets of Adams’ repertoire as possible. I arranged for transportation, lodging, and food, I kept everyone on schedule, and I paid for everything, so that things would be done the right way. My greatest obligation, though, was to Pepper’s music.

Two of the record dates, for trio and quartet (Volumes 1 and 4), were led by the terrific Chicago pianist and arranger Jeremy Kahn, whose fascinating introductions and codas did so much to breathe new life into Pepper’s music. One of Kahn’s dates featured saxophonist Gary Smulyan, widely regarded as Pepper Adams’ greatest disciple.

A third session (Volume 2), led by the imaginative Atlanta pianist Kevin Bales, used the guitar of Barry Greene as the lead voice in a quartet setting. Bales transcribed several tunes from Adams’ original recordings, as did saxophonist Frank Basile, who transcribed and arranged some of Pepper’s earliest tunes for his sextet date (Volume 3). On Basile’s session is bassist Dennis Irwin, who died just ten months after the session. This may have been Irwin’s very last recording date.

For the next five years I tried to interest record companies in my Adams project. By day, I ran my wine brokerage, Sommelier Direct, and spent much of my free time writing content for At the Detroit Jazz Festival I twice spoke about Pepper Adams, and the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz commissioned me to write an article on Adams.

A few years ago, still without a record contract, I thought again about Pepper’s seven ballads and his unfulfilled wish to have lyrics written for them. I felt this was a really important project to undertake, consistent with Adams’ wishes, yet fraught with challenges: I’d need a lyricist, a great singer, a thoughtful arranger, and a really good band. Then I realized most of the pieces were already in place. Jeremy Kahn’s charts were so superb on his previous Pepper Adams recordings, and he’s such a great accompanist, that it was easy to invite him back for a vocal date, especially with his marvelous trio. Since I’d already recorded all of Pepper’s ballads on the previous four volumes, I thought it would be much better to take some artistic risks and modify the styles and tempos of five ballads (retaining two as is for balance) so that Volume 5 would better cohere as a stand-alone album. I especially felt that re-imagining five of the ballads would keep Jeremy intellectually engaged.

Kahn had already recorded four of the ballads on Volumes 1 and 4, so I offered the remaining three to our two guest soloists, asking them to pick one each as a solo feature. Then I asked Jeremy to refashion Civilization and Its Discontents as a Latin tune, Lovers of Their Time as a waltz, I Carry Your Heart as a funk tune, Julian as a groover, and Now in Our Lives as a Mingus-inspired flag waver. (As a special treat, included is a ballad version of “I Carry Your Heart,” performed by Kahn and Alexis Cole as an afterthought while the musicians were packing up. This impromptu duet calls to mind Duke Ellington and Harry Carney’s performance of “Lotus Blossom” on Ellington’s 1967 homage to Billy Strayhorn, ...And His Mother Called Him Bill.)

My plans for this project included the use of two tenor saxophonists, since (with the exception of a cameo appearance by Eric Schneider) I hadn’t used tenors on the previous four dates. This certainly was made up for by inviting two of the very best: Pat LaBarbera and Eric Alexander. Pat, one of the greatest saxophonists of his generation, had played with Pepper Adams while a member of Elvin Jones’ group. The rhythm section was very excited to work with him, and Eric was a perfect, hand-in-glove fit, because of his longstanding relationship with drummer George Fludas. Like Pat, Eric’s a gifted musician and a dynamic soloist.

With the band chosen and the arrangements conceptualized, I still needed a very special singer for this project. Fortunately, Alexander recommended Alexis Cole, a highly regarded singer who had recorded with Fred Hersch and One for All. Alexander’s choice was superb, not only because of Coles’ astounding musicianship and good taste, but because she happened to live in New York and therefore be available to collaborate closely with poet/lyricist Barry Wallenstein. Wallenstein, my old friend and mentor, had never written lyrics to jazz tunes, but he was intrigued by the project, and, with Alexis Cole and pianist Adam Birnbaum’s help, paired evocative lyrics with Adams’ enduring, dreamy, Strayhornesque melodies.

With all the pieces in place, in May 2011 we met in Chicago to record the album. The session went very smoothly and the project was as much of an artistic success as the other recordings. Musically, the band grooves just as hard as Volumes 1-4; the arrangements are excellent; and Alexis Cole and the soloists perform at a very high level.

Of course, Volume 5 has the distinction of being the very first album to feature lyrics with Pepper Adams’ compositions. Where this recording breaks entirely new ground is the original way that Wallenstein’s poetry and Cole’s phrasing match Adams’ melody lines and thereby transform his ballads into timeless, unique art songs. Devoid of rhymes and the common love language heard in jazz standards, these songs behave differently than those on other vocal albums, yet work just as well. Moreover, altering five of Adams’ compositions into different genres reveals not just the band’s versatility, but also how adaptable Pepper’s music is to interpretation.

Several months after this recording was made, Alexis Cole introduced me to Jana Herzen of Harlem (New York City) based Motéma Music, whose label champions innovators in jazz and other creative genres. Herzen, a guitarist and vocalist herself, understood the importance of bringing attention to Adams’ legacy as a composer. At long last I’d found a loving home for my recorded tribute to Pepper Adams.

The Motéma team suggested that the best approach to bringing this music to the public was to issue this deluxe digital box set, and to also create in physical CD format, the JOY ROAD SAMPLER, a promotionally priced CD that would give an introductory taste of the varied music on all five volumes. The sampler could be circulated for radio play and for sale in brick and mortar stores. It was also decided to release a stand-alone CD version of Volume 5 (featuring Alexis Cole, a Motéma artist), since that volume was especially distinguished as the world premiere of lyrics set to the music of Pepper Adams. As an added perk, Scarecrow press was kind enough to allow me to include excerpts from my book, Pepper Adams’ Joy Road: An Annotated Discography, at the end of these liner notes. I hope you enjoy them and it sends you to my book for more!

An interesting side note to this project is that, as a result of my expertise in wine, and my passion for Pepper Adams, I now find myself helping spearheard a brand new ‘Jazz for Wine Lovers’ program with Motéma. The JOY ROAD SAMPLER has been picked as the inaugural release, and my company, Sommelier Direct, has enlisted three esteemed boutique winery clients (Stangeland, Standing Stone, and Hannah Nicole) to work on the JOY ROAD book and music promotional campaign and tour. Their support and generosity is most appreciated.

If you wish to treat yourself to some excellent wine, please visit, and Make sure also to join the e-mail list visit to find out about upcoming releases, events and special promotions.

What a joy this project has been, both for me, and for the musicians, many of whom played with Adams when they were young and impressionable. Because of the great musicians that participated in this project, and, especially, the courage of Motéma Music to distribute it throughout the world, my mission to resurrect Pepper Adams the composer has been realized. About Adams’ compositions, writer Will Friedwald said it best in the Wall Street Journal: Pepper Adams is a “brilliant, if chronically overlooked composer [who] wrote vigorous boppers . . . and beautiful ballads . . . all of which are worthy of our attention.” Thanks to all, for your involvement and interest!

I want to especially thank Ron Ley, John Varner, Dan Olson, Nancy Thorne, Jana Herzen, Frank Basile, and Barry Wallenstein, who read this piece and made enormously helpful suggestions.

Gary Carner
April 2012