Monday, September 9, 2013

CD Review: Frank Teschemacher * Jazz Me Blues * 1927-1930

Frank Teschemacher (1906-1932) was the central figure of the famed 'Austin High Gang'  whose membership and influence extended through the 1920s to such players as Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Dave Tough, and Jess Stacy.

Tesch was remembered by Benny Goodman as "a fine musician and perhaps the most inventive it has been my privilege to hear." Gunther Schuller called him "the Ornette Coleman of the twenties, a lone original who, killed in an auto accident on leap-year day in 1932 at age twenty-five, never had the chance to fully develop his curious art"(The Swing Era, 11).

Artie Shaw remembered a session with Tesch at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago one night in 1930:

[On] this same session was the clarinet player...Frank Teschemacher. I sat next to him and watched him while he played. We were all slightly drunk on bad bootleg gin, but it didn't seem to affect his playing any. He...had this odd style of playing (...). Even while he'd be reaching out for something in his deliberately fumbling way, some phrase you couldn't quite see the beginning or end of (or for that matter, the reason for in the first place), there was an assurance about everything he did that made you see that he himself knew where he was going all the time; and by the time he got there you began to see it yourself, for in its own grotesque way it made a kind of musical sense, but something extremely personal and intimate to himself, something so subtle that it could never possibly have had great communicative meaning to anyone but another musician and even then only to a jazz musician who happened to be pretty damn hep to what was going on. [ The Trouble with Cinderella, pp198-199]   

It can be difficult to find recordings of Tesch--one of the only compilations available these days is this 2011 CD with 26 tracks, from Retrospective Records in the UK. Though not as comprehensive as some of the earlier LP sets, this CD is an excellent collection of recordings from 1927-30, featuring Tesch's work in groups such as the Chicago Rhythm Kings, Wingy Manone and his Club Royale Orchestra, and even playing "Jazz Me Blues" under his own name. Also featured on these cuts are some early performances of Gene Krupa, Eddie Condon, Muggsy Spanier, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, and others.

For those who have heard a wide variety of jazz clarinet recordings, the legendary wildness and roughness of Teschmacher's style might seem to have been exaggerated a bit by history--perhaps as much as Benny's "refinement" of sound has been exaggerated (the two seem to have been treated at times as poles of jazz clarinetistry, in a way that does neither of them justice). My dominant first impression on hearing Tesch was not how contrasting he was to Goodman, but how similar Tesch's altissimo approach was to Benny's mature, 1930s style. More than any other clarinetist before him, Tesch had a clear, strong, commanding altissimo with tongue attacks that jumped. To my ear, Benny's altissimo articulation resembles Tesch's more than Roppolo, Noone, Dodds, Lewis, or any other jazz clarinetist of the era. Likewise, the astonishing solo formulations of Tesch seem less shocking than they must have during the pre-swing era.

Having granted these things, this CD is an important document of a trailblazing jazz clarinetist, who like Stan Hasselgård a generation later, died tragically in a car accident before his full artistic stature could be realized. His playing gives us a better picture of the clarinet milieu of the 1920s, particularly the supremely important Chicago scene that produced Goodman. Three Good Reeds.

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