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Friday, September 10, 2010

Jim Pepper, Gunther Schuller, Mr. D.C. and "Custer Gets It"

By Sean Cruz

Portland, Oregon--

Jim Pepper never wrote pop tunes, that’s probably the first thing you should know about Jim Pepper.

Jim’s music came from visions, from his family, from ancestral teachings, from his friends with whom he shared his life, from his heritage, from the People, from the Earth, from the Sky, from the Wind and from the Water; they were his sonic visions, and they were as ancient as Man, as eternal….

Sometimes he wrote his music down in the form of compositions, sometimes they were recorded, and sometimes, if you were truly fortunate, you were there when he performed them live.

It’s one thing to have a vision, quite another to have the gift of expressing it, and Jim Pepper was one of the very finest, most original virtuosos to ever breathe through a tenor saxophone in the history of the instrument, right up there with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and you can fill out the Top 5 of All Time list with any other two names that you like….

Jim Pepper’s saxophone bridged continents and cultures, broke through language barriers all over the planet, and still does….

His father Gilbert Pepper and his grandfather Ralph Pepper gave him his start on his first tenor saxophone, and that music, their music, came from the Great Mystery….

Jim Pepper would be the first to tell you that his music came from somewhere else, from someone else. He was just the musician, he would say, taking the visions and adding harmony, jazz chords, this or that, singing in that soulful voice as ancient as water, and then picking up that silver saxophone, and your life would change, if only just a little bit at a time….

Mr. D.C. was Jim’s composition dedicated to his musical and spiritual brother Don Cherry, the pocket-trumpet-playing improvisational avante garde hero, the two of them joined for eternity in this world and the next, both of them blowing free and beautiful at the very same time, up there now with Trane and Monk, Dizzy and Miles, Floyd Red Crow Westerman and Johnny Cash.

Here, Gunther Schuller’s arrangement takes you on a journey through time and space, you will wonder how you got there so effortlessly, back to the mid-19th century at a place called The Little Big Horn, and at the same time here you are in the heart of free jazz country, some of the most challenging music that the 20th century had to offer.

First the orchestra enters, signals something’s up, there is something coming your way, you just need to pay attention a little bit, and the Remembrance Band is in there too, very subtle, working it, then the tempo changes and we’re in a new place….

Jazz, orchestra, Indians, Gunther Schuller speaking in his Third Stream voice, full throated….

That’s not Jim on saxophone, but you know he would dig it, and is digging it right now, Jim and Don….

Then the segue into Jim’s “Custer Gets it”….

And his lyrics:

“Here come the Indians, comin’ real fast

“Comin’ down the pass, gonna kick you in the ass

“Here come the Indians, comin’ real fast

“Comin’ down the pass, gonna kick you in the ass

“Custer Gets It! Custer Gets It! Custer Gets It! Custer Gets it!” the singers shout!

And from there swirling into a free jazz moment, a world that Jim knew as surely as any other musician who walked the earth, sure-footed Jim, on the battlefield at the Little Big Horn…you get the point.

Silence…and then the orchestra restates, there’s a little bit of Africa in that theme, it’s World music, after all….

That last muted trumpet note fades…shades of Choctaw Don Cherry…this note’s for you, Don….

With your help, Gunther Schuller’s Witchi Tai To: The Music of Jim Pepper …is coming to Portland in 2011.

You can listen to Mr. D.C. on YouTube right here:


…and your life changes, a little bit at a time….

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