No record label has done more to establish the unique voice of European jazz -- not as an adjunct to American trends, but as a legitimate source of innovation -- than ECM under the direction of Manfred Eicher. But here Jan Garbarek and the exceptional rhythm section of Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen dig deeply into the ultimate American roots music. The Native American-inspired jazz of the late Jim Pepper
is still all too little known and appreciated, although it has found a devoted audience that will not let his vital music be forgotten. Garbarek and crew offer an impassioned rendition of Pepper's best-known composition. Stenson starts in a wistful vein, but the energy level gradually increases . . . until Garbarek enters and wails with passion. His work in the upper register is as close as the saxophone can get to a human cry.
“Makes me feel glad that I’m not dead,” Pepper sings on this performance of his best known work. But four years later, Pepper would be dead, at age forty. He never achieved the fame in his lifetime that he richly deserved – but more honors and accolades have come his way posthumously. I have a hunch that his reputation will only continue to grow with the passing years, and that he will eventually be acknowledged as one of the jazz greats of his generation. “Witchi-Tai-To,” inspired by chants he heard his grandfather sing, would become the most unlikely of jazz standards, covered by everybody from Oregon to the pop duo Brewer & Shipley (of “One Toke Over the Line” fame). But nobody has performed it with the vigor and poignancy of Pepper himself, who here showcases it in a duet with pianist Kirk Lightsey.
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