Three I’s: IMPORTANT, IRREPLACEABLE, and INEXPENSIVE.
But I’ll let Dan Levinson explain it all to us.
In 1992, legendary record producer George Avakian produced an album in homage to the pioneers of 1920s Chicago Jazz, known as The Austin High Gang, who had been among his most powerful influences when his love for jazz was developing. Those pioneers included Frank Teschemacher, Eddie Condon, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, Muggsy Spanier, Joe Sullivan, Gene Krupa, and others. Avakian’s 1992 recording featured two bands: one, directed by pianist Dick Hyman, which played Hyman’s note-for-note re-creations of the original recordings; and a second band, led by clarinetist Kenny Davern, which played its own interpretations of songs associated with the Chicago Jazz style, keeping the SPIRIT of the original artists close at hand. I was in the Teschemacher role in Hyman’s band, and had never been in a recording studio before. Avakian financed the whole project, but, sadly, was never able to find a label that was wiling to reimburse his cost and put the album out. The last time I went to visit George, in June of 2017, I asked him about the album again. Then 98 years old, he was clearly disappointed that it never came out, and he asked me to continue his search for a label and to “get it issued”. I exhausted my resources at the time, and wasn’t able to make it happen before George passed away several months later. Three years later, Bryan Wright, founder of Rivermont Records, rode in to save the day. And this month – thirty years after the original recording session took place – Avakian’s dream project is finally coming out on Bryan’s label as “One Step to Chicago: The Legacy of Frank Teschemacher and The Austin High Gang”. Bryan has – literally – spared no expense in assembling a beautiful package, which is actually a CD inside a booklet rather than a booklet inside a CD. I’ve written extensive liner notes detailing every aspect of the project, and there are also written contributions from author/record producer Hank O’Neal, guitarist Marty Grosz, and drummer Hal Smith, a specialist in Chicago Jazz style. I was able to track down the original photos from the recording session, and Bryan’s booklet includes a generous selection of them. I want to gratefully acknowledge the help of archivist Matt Snyder, cover artist Joe Busam (who designed the album cover based on Avakian’s 1940 78rpm album “Decca Presents an Album of Chicago Jazz”), the family of George Avakian, Hank O’Neal, Maggie Condon, and the New York Public Library, whose help in making this happen was invaluable. The album features a truly spectacular lineup of artists, including, in various combinations: Peter Ecklund, Jon-Erik Kellso, Dick Sudhalter, Dan Barrett, Ken Peplowski, Dick Hyman, Marty Grosz, Howard Alden, Bob Haggart, Milt Hinton, Vince Giordano, Arnie Kinsella, and Tony DeNicola.
The CD and digital download are available on the Rivermont Records website here. A vinyl version – a two-record set, in fact – will be available later this month.
And here is Rivermont founder (and superb pianist) Bryan Wright’s story of ONE STEP TO CHICAGO.
“Dick Hyman and his Frank Teschemacher Celebration Band” (Ecklund, Sudhalter, Kellso, Barrett, Levinson, Peplowski, Hyman, Grosz, Haggart, Giordano, Kinsella) play / recreate classic Chicago recordings from the Golden Era of free-wheeling jazz: ONE STEP TO HEAVEN / SUGAR / I’VE FOUND A NEW BABY / CHINA BOY / LIZA (Condon, not Gershwin) / SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE: eighteen minutes in the most divine Hot Time Machine.
and “Kenny Davern and his Windy City Stompers” (Davern, Kellso, Barrett, Hyman, Alden, Hinton, DiNicola) going for themselves on THE DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL / WABASH BLUES / NOBODY’S SWEETHEART / THE JAZZ ME BLUES / BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? / INDIANA.
and — a bonus — a nearly nine-minute excursion on FAREWELL BLUES by the combined bands.
But I can hear someone saying, “Enough with the facts. How does it SOUND, Michael?” To which I respond without hesitation, “It sounds terrific. Finest kind. It delivers the goods — sonically, emotionally, and heatedly.”
I will give pride of place to the writers / scholars whose words and reminiscences fill the eighty-page booklet (complete with wonderful photographs) Dick Hyman, Hank O’Neal, Dan Levinson, Hal Smith, and Marty Grosz, explain and elucidate, as they do beautifully, the roles of George Avakian, Eddie Condon, Bix Beiderbecke, and two dozen other saints of Hot. That booklet is both perceptive and unabashed in its love for the people and the sounds, and it is more than worth the price of admission. Unlike much jazz writing about the hallowed past, it is also delightfully free of hyperbole and something I will politely call hooey.
The CD — aside from the booklet — has two wonderful selves. The first six performances are evocations of the original, classic, recordings, with musicians who know the originals by heart working from expert transcriptions by the Master, Dick Hyman. The business of “re-creation” is difficult, and I have gotten into trouble in the past when pointing out that in some cases it feels impossible. Great art comes hot from the toaster; it is innovative, imagined for the first time in those minutes in the recording studio. So re-creation requires both deep emotional understanding of the individuals involved, the aesthetic air they breathed, and expert sleight-of-hand to make a listener believe they are hearing the ghost of Tesch rather than someone dressed up as Tesch for Halloween.
But the re-creations on this disc are as satisfying as any I’ve heard, more than simply playing the dots on the page, but dramatically assuming the characters of the heroes we revere. They are passionate rather than stiff, and wonderfully translucent: when Ken Peplowski plays a Bud Freeman chorus, we hear both Bud and Ken trotting along in delightful parallel.
I confess that the second half of this disc makes my eyes bright and my tail wag: it isn’t “hell-for-leather” or “take no prisoners,” or whatever cliches you like to characterize the appearance of reckless abandon. What it presents is a group of sublime improvisers bringing all their knowledge and heart to the classics of the past, playing their personalities in the best ways. And each selection reminds us that however “hot” the Chicagoans prided themselves on being, lyricism was at the heart of their performances. I cherish INDIANA, performed at a rhythm-ballad tempo by Kenny Davern, Howard Alden, Milt Hinton, and Tony DiNicola, and the other band selections are full of surprises, pleasing and reassuring both. The closing FAREWELL BLUES has all the joy of a Condon Town Hall concert, and that is no small accomplishment.
And I can’t leave this without noting how lovely the recorded sound is — applause for David Baker, Malcolm Addey, and Peter Karl. I’ve heard more than two-thirds of these performers live, often at very close range, and this disc captures their sounds, their subtleties so marvelously.
This disc is a treasure-box of sounds and homages, with lively music from present company. I predict it will spread joy, and my only encouragement would be for people to for once shun the download, because they won’t get the book. It’s the Library of Alexandria transported to 35th and Calumet.
And here are some sound samples so no one need feel that they are purchasing on faith, although faith in these musicians and these producers would be wholly warranted.
May your happiness increase!