Saturday, April 22, 2017

Utah State Does It The Right Way

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

I arrived in Logan, Utah on a Monday, just before dinner. Logan is a college town, the home of Utah State University. The drive north from Salt Lake City is picturesque, especially breathtaking on Route 89 as you drive up and over the mountain pass about twenty minutes outside of Logan.

Baritone saxophonist Jon Gudmundson ( invited me to Utah State. He runs their jazz program. The occasion of my two hour journey from Salt Lake City was to fulfill Jon’s vision of a Pepper Adams celebration at Utah State.

Several years ago in an email to me, Jon said he’d like to produce a big band concert of Pepper Adams charts to feature both his students and a guest soloist. Also, he thought I should participate in some way. Jon’s idea was an outgrowth of purchasing Tony Faulkner’s charts in 2013 as part of my Kickstarter campaign.

Fast forward to 2016. I wrote Jon to tell him that my daughter had moved to Salt Lake and I’d be in Utah at least once a year. That brought Jon’s idea for an Adams celebration back to the foreground. Moving ahead, Jon invited baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall (, ) to be the soloist with his two student big bands. And he asked me to lecture about Pepper Adams to his jazz history class and do a pre-concert interview about Adams with Utah deejay Steve Williams as a way of kicking off the show.

                    (Jon Gudmundson)

Apart from the Pepper Adams agenda, the week was made even more interesting by the presence of guitarist Peter Bernstein ( Since Bernstein was passing through on his way back to New York, he too was invited to do a clinic and perform a concert at USU’s beautiful Performance Hall. This confluence of heavyweight New York musicians way out west felt like a Smoke reunion. (Both play there on a weekly basis.)

Sitting in on Peter’s concert were Jason Marshall and guitarist Corey Christiansen ( ). The concert consisted of standards and it revealed a more introspective side of Bernstein’s artistry than I expected. His playing throughout showcased the harmonic inventiveness and technical range that has made him one of the world’s foremost guitarists.

The following morning I lectured on Pepper Adams in Jon’s class. It was comprised mostly on non-music majors. I only had 75 minutes. Much like my lecture at Brigham Young University the previous week I needed to keep my comments brief. Unlike BYU, however, I was able to read to the students part of my Prologue to my forthcoming Adams biography and interlace two YouTube videos for context: ( and

During my lecture, Jon Gudmundson said that he and Jason Marshall were talking about Pepper. Marshall questioned whether Adams on ballad performances ever stayed in a tender mood for an entire tune without double-timing. Partly on Marshall's behalf, Gudmundson asked me, “Does Pepper always scramble eggs?” “Yes,” I nodded. I mentioned that Adams in some ways was a frustrated soloist, spending too much time with big bands and not nearly enough recording or playing on his own with small groups. Jon, understanding my reply, said in summation, “He had a lot of notes inside that needed to come out.”

In addressing Jon and Jason’s question further, I then played for the class “Star-Crossed Lovers” from Adams’ great recording Encounter ( to show Adams’ interest in a more sublime, lyrical aesthetic. On that, unfortunately, Pepper only embellishes the melody. Much like Coltrane’s “Naima,” Pepper doesn’t take a solo, instead giving it to Tommy Flanagan as Trane did with McCoy Tyner. I thought to next play Pepper’s solo on “East of the Sun” with Toots Thielemans from Man Bites Harmonica but the class was coming to a close.

After the talk I thought more about the issue of Adams as an “extreme player.” Does that detract from what he does? Some musicians, such as bassist Major Holley, would ask him why he plays so many notes. Did they ask Art Tatum the same thing? Does that suggest a double standard? Is there a different aesthetic expected of piano soloists than saxophonists or low-pitched instrumentalists?

I remembered something Gary Smulyan once said to me about the audience perception of baritone playing, something he’s been trying to get away from as his career continues to evolve. He told me it’s always expected that he play aggressively. If he doesn’t, his fans are let down. Perhaps Pepper Adams felt the same pressure?

Basically, it seems to me that Pepper’s playing is characterized one way based on the bulk of his commercial recordings. Yet some of his little known audience tapes show an entirely different side to his playing. If Pepper, on commercial recordings, preferred a bravura, virtuosic style of playing, is that necessarily a bad thing?

I thought first about medium tempo Pepper solos, such as the audience recording Bye, Bye Blackbird ( ) where Adams strikes a perfect balance between behind-the-beat, swinging eighth-note choruses and double-timing. But then I remembered some commercial recordings. There’s this early Pepper solo on “A Winter’s Tale”:
Pepper plays very lyrically until he doubles up at the end as a climactic denouement. How about his great solo on Excerent?: Do you have any lyrical Pepper solos you can recommend?

Back to Marshall and Gudmundson's point, how about Adams’ ballad playing in particular? Did Pepper ever hold back and not double-time? This ties into a criticism that Lewis Porter once articulated to me about Adams. He said, after listening to a Pepper solo at my house in the mid 1980s, that Adams is “an anxious player.” Do you in any way agree? Is he too quick to double up, too eager (= anxious) to slowly build up a solo? Do some of his lines, or his rhythmic patterns, add an anxious sensibility, especially when they’re staccato? Does Martin Williams’ comment to me many years ago about Pepper--“He’s playing Coleman Hawkins paradiddles”-- have any merit?

Lip scoops. Remember Brian Williams’ comment a year or so ago about Pepper’s overuse of them? Is this unique to Pepper? Is it part of his articulational concept?

Apart from all the time I spent thinking about the implications of Jon and Jason's observation, one of the highlights of my Logan experience was a jam session held at Jack’s Wood Fired Oven. Mostly an enthusiastic Tuesday night hang for Utah State music students and their retinue, the night was made particularly exciting thanks to the added presence of Jason Marshall, Peter Bernstein, various Utah State faculty, and especially Detroit trumpeter Kris Johnson (, who drove up from Salt Lake with one of his bari students to see Marshall (his old Count Basie Band buddy). All took turns sitting in and Johnson was dazzling!

Equally enjoyable was my opportunity to speak to the large pre-concert audience on my final night in Logan. For thirty minutes I was asked a handful of questions by Steve Williams before an appreciative house prior to USU’s “Tribute to Pepper Adams.” At the Tribute (see program), Greg Wheeler conducted two Tony Faulkner charts: “Mary’s Blues” and “Trentino.” Later, Jon Gudmundson conducted three others: 
Bossallegro,” “Doctor Deep” and “Etude Diabolique.” 

Featured soloist Jason Marshall played beautifully throughout the night. He had a chance to work with the USU faculty small group (Aggie Music Project) on two tunes between the big band sets, and added an absolutely exquisite surprise ballad duet, backed by piano. He prefaced it by saying (and I paraphrase), “I want to play something pretty. We need more pretty in our lives. It delays the oxidative process.”

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