From the Leader:

When Gary Carner approached me about leading a record date of eleven Pepper Adams compositions, I was honored. Gary is a very special guy who has dedicated the better part of the last quarter century to the very noble cause of keeping alive the music and memory of Pepper Adams.

As Gary knows, Pepper Adams is widely considered the most original and influential baritone saxophonist in modern jazz. He was a true “musician’s musician,” whose life and playing touched many people; and his music continues to do so for musicians like myself, who, unfortunately, never had the opportunity to hear him perform live. Pepper Adams is certainly my biggest influence in music, and I thank Gary Carner for letting me pay tribute to Pepper.

I started playing clarinet and alto saxophone in grade school while growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. By the time I was in ninth grade, I switched to the baritone saxophone, at the suggestion of my band teacher. Over the next year or two, my interest in specializing in the baritone kept growing. At age 15, my interest became a passion after I purchased a copy of the Charles Mingus recording Blues and Roots, which, of course, featured Pepper Adams. I had heard a handful of other baritone saxophonists before, but none of them came close to speaking to me the way Pepper Adams did (and still does). I became an ardent fan, seeking out as many Adams recordings as possible. Fortunately, I had a part-time job working at a local record store, whose jazz buyer was extremely knowledgeable and who helped me find many of Pepper’s recordings. As a young high school sophomore, my technical knowledge of music was quite limited, but I didn’t need anything other than my ears to tell me that this was what I dug the most.

Looking back, I can now appreciate what it was about Pepper’s playing that grabbed me so undeniably: A rock-solid time feeling, a beautifully rich sound, a harmonic assuredness and sophistication, and an unmistakable personal style. For me, these are the hallmarks of a great jazz musician, and Pepper was the epitome of all these qualities -- and then some! As I went on to study music in college and find my own voice on the baritone saxophone, Pepper remained the leader of the pack of all my favorite jazz musicians, and his recordings became some of my greatest teachers.

Not surprisingly, Pepper’s recordings also informed my approach to this project. Because it was my feeling that writing complex new arrangements would detract from the beauty and intent of each composition, I stuck closely to Adams’ originals, but added shout choruses, backgrounds, and different textures, where I felt it was appropriate.

I couldn’t have asked for a better band to play these arrangements. Three of the musicians--trombonist John Mosca, bassist Dennis Irwin, and drummer Tim Horner--had played with Pepper, and have a world of experience playing with top musicians all over the globe. The others I knew would fit in perfectly too.

From 1975 until Pepper left in August, 1977 to go out as a “single,” John Mosca and Pepper Adams were members of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Dennis Irwin, for his part, recorded two small group dates with Pepper: Curtis Fuller’s Four on the Outside and Joshua Breakstone’s Echoes. Tim Horner had Pepper in his band in 1984 for what began as a tour of Asia, but devolved into a one-nighter in Singapore.

Rounding out the sextet is two of my more favorite co-conspirators: trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and pianist Adam Birnbaum. Joe is one of the top trumpet soloists in New York, whose playing in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra I’ve admired while sitting just a few feet away in the reed section. Adam and I have played countless gigs together since we first met at Juilliard. He’s one of the world’s great young pianists, as you’ll hear from his playing on this recording.

Prior to writing the arrangements, I had to first transcribe from the original recordings “Philson,” “What Is It,” “Libeccio,” and “A Winters Tale,” because leadsheets couldn’t be located. Because some of the tunes had similar chord changes, I decided to create some variety by handing over “Libeccio” to Adam Birnbaum and the rhythm section, so Adam could personalize the arrangement as a feature for him. Additionally, “Urban Dreams” was arranged by John Mosca as a trombone feature with the rhythm section. Apart from these two tunes, however, I did the other nine arrangements. Once everything was in place, the group had the opportunity to rehearse all the charts at a handful of gigs in New York within a month of the recording date. This allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the music and have everything feeling just right by the time we got into the studio.

Our set of Adams tunes starts out with “Excerent,” a composition recorded on Red Garland’s 1962 Riverside date Red’s Good Groove. It is a good example of the unique twists and turns many of Pepper’s tunes employ. The tonality of the tune is F minor, but we find ourselves starting in G-flat major. On the journey, we also find ourselves visiting E-flat major and E major. On the original recording, Pepper and Blue Mitchell play the melody in octaves, for the most part, but I decided to make use of the three-horn front line by voicing out the melody. I’ve also included a little interlude before the bass solo, as well as an updated coda. This is a fun set of chord changes on which to work. Joe takes the bull by the horns here, weaving some exciting, fiery, double-time lines into his three choruses.

Next is “Philson,” Pepper’s unique take on the blues, originally from his 1960 Bethlehem date Motor City Scene. The arrangement is presented here as it was originally, with one exception: I’ve tweaked the opening sonority to B7sus. After the “out-of-left-field” opening, the solos are presented in a traditional vein. Dennis gets rolling with one of his signature gems, showing why he was everybody’s favorite bassist. He hands the baton off to Adam, who takes a great lap, as do Mosca and “Mags.” I assumed the very difficult task of “anchor leg.”

On Adam Birnbaum’s arrangement of “Libeccio,” also from Motor City Scene, the fantastic rhythm section takes the spotlight. Here, the tune’s tempo and groove are a bit looser and more relaxed than in the original recording. It’s a pleasure to listen to the trio feed off each other. After great statements by Adam and Dennis, Dennis trades a chorus of 4s with Tim, whose brushes are in top form.

“What Is It” shows another side to Pepper Adams’ writing: his diabolical melodies. Here we have an almost non-repeating melody, like many of the great bebop tunes written by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others, in this case superimposed on the chord progression of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love.” This is one of Pepper’s more obscure tunes, appearing on the 1969 Richard Davis MPS recording, Muses for Richard Davis. Other than the little shout chorus I added, we present it just as Pepper and Jimmy Knepper did on the original date. As is his custom, John Mosca turns in an especially fine solo here, exploring rhythm, range, and melody. Dig his quote on “Barry’s Bop.”

Adam Birnbaum’s piano gets things started on “Binary,” a lively shuffle blues written in 1979, but not recorded by Uptown Records until 1985 on The Adams Effect, Pepper’s last date as a leader. The interesting riff melody is presented by Joe and John in fourths. Then I respond with the syncopated countermelody. We all join for a nice crunch at the end of the theme, Adam continues with his statement and really gets cooking, ending with a very fitting pentatonic motif, and then John and I exchange some choruses before bringing Joe in. Tim wraps things up and leads us out.

“In Love with Night” is one of the many slow, expressive ballads Pepper wrote that evoke the harmonic language and dreamy melodic landscape of Billy Strayhorn. After the rhythm section’s intro over a pedal point, the beautiful melody sits perfectly atop the unique chord changes. Oddly enough, Pepper did not play on the only previous recording of this tune, the 1978 Interplay date Confluence, led by fellow Stan Kenton saxophonist Bill Perkins.

The oldest tune presented here, “A Winters Tale,” was recorded in 1956 on Got’cha (San Francisco), Mel Lewis’ first date as a leader. Even as early as 1956 (before Pepper even recorded as a leader), Pepper’s compositional style was already well-established. Pepper wrote his arrangement for a four-horn front line (trumpet, 2 tenor saxes, and baritone sax), and I’ve kept its flavor, boiling it down for three horns. Dennis Irwin’s huge, beautiful beat is on display here. Everybody’s feeling good and all get to have their say.

“Joy Road,” a street in Detroit, is an apt title for this joyful composition. The tune was written in 1980 and recorded by Criss Cross on the 1985 Hod O’Brien recording Opalessence. Pepper’s original arrangement had Tom Harrell playing the lead line on flugelhorn, with Pepper harmonizing below. Here, we present the same orchestration, but the baritone takes the lead instead, and the trombone is on the bottom. Mosca gets started with a dizzying break, and continues to burn for two choruses. Next, I take a turn, followed by Adam. Then, Mosca and I trade some 8s with Tim, whose “big ears” help him provide the perfect touch.

Next, is “Urban Dreams,” another of those wonderful Pepper Adams ballads. It was the title track to Pepper’s 1981 Palo Alto recording of the same name. John Mosca is featured here with the rhythm section, and he and the trio give a beautiful reading from start to finish. The subtle “hits” that John added to his arrangement give the tune added depth.

The old Heyman and Young standard “Love Letters” provides the harmony for “Witches Pit,” and Pepper’s melody is a perfect complement to the chord changes. The original 1957 recording, with John Coltrane and Cecil Payne, appeared on the Prestige date Baritones and French Horns. Recorded at 16 2/3 rpm, it was later reissued at the more customary 33 1/3 rpm on the recording Dakar. Instead of presenting the melody in unison, as it was originally conceived, I’ve updated the arrangement with a few chromatic counterlines and a touch of 3-part harmony. Everybody is in top form here. Joe starts things off with a soulful break -- Tim is right there with him! -- and he sets the bar very high by making one his signature lyrical statements with his gorgeous, singing tone.

The closer here is “Freddie Froo,” recorded in 1957 on Pepper Adams Quintet (Mode), Pepper’s first date as a leader. It’s an uptempo burner based on “I Got Rhythm,” with an altered bridge. Here again, we all say our piece, including another great round of trading with Tim. Adam plays some really nice lines doubled at the octave. To wrap things up, I wrote a shout chorus. Check out Dennis’ perfectly placed eight bars near the end.

Playing Pepper’s music will always be enjoyable and challenging for me. And, much like his playing, his composing will always serve as an inspiration. I’m very pleased with the way this date turned out, and I thank all the guys who took part in it for making it so. I hope you enjoy what we’ve done, and that the recording opens the door for you to further explore the music of Pepper Adams.

Frank Basile
Brooklyn, NY
November 2010

4.What Is It
6.In Love with Night
7.A Winters Tale
8.Joy Road
9.Urban Dreams
10.Witches Pit
11.Freddie Froo
      Frank Basile, Baritone Saxophone
      John Mosca, Trombone
      Joe Magnarelli, Trumpet
      Adam Birnbaum, Piano
      Dennis Irwin, Bass
      Tim Horner, Drums

      John Rosenberg, Recording Engineer
      John Larson, Mixing Engineer
      Gary Carner, Producer

      Recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn NY, May 25-26, 2007