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With her 2016 release Art, she pays tribute to one of the greatest of alto players, Art Pepper. Koketsu pulls all the stops to make a proper homage. She plays only Pepper-compositions or songs widely attributed to him. She is backed by an all-American rhythm section, players who are well versed in West Coast jazz despite residing in New York. In fact, she recorded the album in the Big Apple, a place where Pepper found a resurgence during the latter part of his career (encapsulated by his historic three days at the Village Vanguard).
Although it would be easy to update these songs to fit a more contemporary sound, Koketsu sticks to tradition and plays these classics straight-ahead. This makes Art feel like a proper tribute to the man’s artistry. She interestingly begins with an obscure Pepper original, “Cool Bunny,” a simple mid-tempo composition with endless improvisational possibilities. Koketsu begins with simple start-and-stop licks in true bop-ish fashion. Her playing is strictly orthodox, true to the cool jazz style. It’s bright, lighthearted, and extremely lyrical, much like Pepper’s own playing.
“Straight Life,” one of Pepper’s signature songs, is played with absolute confidence by Koketsu. She captures Pepper’s sound so closely that you could swear it was an unreleased recording by Pepper during his prime. Her musical ideas never seem to let up as she blows through verse after verse of tight phrases. She even manages to master Pepper’s particular sense of trading fours, leading to a joyous interaction between her and veteran jazz drummer Mark Taylor. However, this is what makes Art problematic at times. Koketsu is no doubt a technically skilled player but it is hard to differentiate her from the legend she is honoring. All too often, it sounds like Koketsu trying to mimic Pepper’s sound instead of throwing in her own flair, a style that has been evident in her previous albums such as 2014’s Balladist.
However, this does not make the album forgettable. Ballads like “Imagination” and “Patricia” sound like a cross between a romantic reunion of lovers and a reflective moment of losing someone. Koketsu’s playing is rightfully tender and subdued, yet still gracefully passionate. Meanwhile, her versions of “Diane’s Dilemma” and “Holiday Flight” are pure West Coast. They’re so breezy you can smell the sea air. She even does a fun duet with bassist Mike Karn in the intro to “When You’re Smiling.” Unfortunately, a rather bland cover of “Bésame Mucho” slows down the album. Instead of experimenting with the song’s classic Latin rhythm, Koketsu opts for a smoother straight-ahead approach which plays to both her strengths and weaknesses as a player.
Art leaves fans of Koketsu wanting more, especially since she has generated quite a bit of hype with jazz crowds. Still, Art is nothing more than a tribute to a man who has mastered Koketsu’s instrument, and what a fine tribute it is. Koketsu plays these tunes with never before heard assurance. It only leaves us hungry for her next outing…