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On this, the 239th birthday of our nation, who better to write about than a man whose career included gigs on both coasts and pretty much everywhere in between? I’m speaking of Pepper Adams, of course. The master of the baritone sax was born in Highland Park, Michigan, on October 8, 1930 and died from lung cancer on September 10, 1986 in New York City.

According to Feather & Gitler, writing in The Biographical Encyclopedia Of Jazz, Adams originally played tenor sax and clarinet. At 15, he switched to bari. His family moved to Detroit when he was 16, and he soon had a job blowing for Lucky Thompson‘s band. For a while, he worked in an auto plant by day and played sax at night.

Over the years, Adams played with just about every top jazz musician of the day. The complete list is far too long for the scope of this humble column, but here are a few to give you an idea: Kenny Burrell, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Chet Baker, Donald Byrd, Benny Goodman, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Gene Ammons, Herbie Hancock, Blue Mitchell, organist Jimmy Smith, and, among many, many others, Grover Washington, Jr. Oh, and he also appeared on Charles Mingus’ last two albums.

During his lifetime he released nearly two dozen albums under his own name, and a further handful have been released posthumously. The one I want to tell you about today was, depending upon whom you listen to, either his first or second album as a leader, 1957’s “Pepper Adams Quintet.” (Joe Quinn’s liner notes refer to this as “[Adams’] first recorded effort…” Others place it second.)

The Pepper Adams Quintet 1957

The Pepper Adams Quintet 1957

The personnel for this one were:

Pepper Adams, bari sax
Stu Williamson, trumpet
Carl Perkins, piano
Leroy Vinnegar, bass
Mel Lewis, drums

The title “Pepper Adams Quintet” is a bit of a double-entendre. Besides five musicians, the album also presents us with five songs, two of which were written by Adams himself and one he co-wrote.

To start things off, the album opens with “Unforgettable,” which Adams wrote along with Irving Gordon. This has become one of the all-time classics of jazz, having been recorded by a huge list of artists, the most notable of whom of course was Nat “King” Cole.

Ironically, it was Cole’s own daughter, Natalie, who recorded what is perhaps the most infamous version of the song by inserting herself into her father’s famous recording, thus creating a duet with her own dead father.

Adams and company give us a knockout rendition, running the chart with no surprises along the way. Solos from Adams, Williamson and Perkins are splendid, and Vinnegar and Lewis drive the action forward with aplomb.

Here are Adams and the guys performing “Unforgettable”:

Up next is another song that has become a standard, minus all the unfortunate baggage that follows “Unforgettable” like toilet paper stuck to your shoe. That would be “Baubles, Bangles And Beads.” This song was written by Robert Wright and George Forrest for the 1953 hit Broadway musical, “Kismet.” It has been recorded by dozens of artists, including Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, and Wes Montgomery.

“Baubles” is a lively song that starts with all hand on deck and accounted for before Adams takes the first solo. It’s not really a solo, of course, because everyone except Williamson is quite plainly present, making it more of a quartolo, if you will. (Four guys soloing together = a quartolo. Hey, I invented a word!) This carries on for a while and then we have Perkins, Lewis and Vinnegar, racing along. A couple of minutes later Williamson finally steps forward and takes the lead. Shortly everyone joins in and it becomes obvious they saved the best for a rousing ending.

“Baubles, Bangles And Beads”

It is rapidly becoming too warm in this room to write, one of the perils of having an upstairs writing room that faces west during an unprecedented heat wave.

That being the case, I am going to write about just one more song, “Freddie Froo”. This is a lively Adams original that, as I am wont to say, jumps out of the starting gate and runs off down the road. Williamson takes a great solo, followed by Adams, then Perkins, and finally Vinnegar and then Lewis. All take their turns in the limelight and acquit themselves magnificently.

“Freddie Froo”

By now it should be obvious that I believe you will find “The Pepper Adams Quintet” to be an outstanding addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!

To learn more about Pepper Adams and his music, here are a few places to get you started.

Someone writing under the supposed pseudonym “arwulf arwulf” has written an impressive bio of Adams on the allmusic.com web site. The moribund jazz.com web site likewise has a nice bio of him, as does MTV of all places. Wikipedia has perhaps the most extensive bio, and someone with more resources than myself will have to judge the accuracy and completeness of the Adams discography you’ll find at jazzdisco.org. You’ll find a lot of info about Adams available on the tribute site, pepperadams.com. Finally, the L.A. Times staff writer Jerry Belcher penned a very nice obit of Adams upon his death.

Thanks for reading this.

Al Evans
Wood Village, Oregon

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