January/February 1997

Jack Teagarden
The Complete Capitol Fifties Sessions
Mosaic Records

In Mosaic's comprehensive collection of Jack Teagarden's 1955-1958 Capitol recordings we find a legendary musician at the peak of his artistic powers, no longer the innovator he had been in his youth, but one whose every solo rings with an assured mastery born of decades of top quality playing. In late 1951, upon completing a four-year hitch with Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, Teagarden formed the first of several combos he was to lead until his death in 1964. But, with one exception, these are not the groups he used for his dates on Capitol. For purposes of musical continuity, Mosaic has deviated somewhat from its customary adherence to chronology and instead has sequenced the sessions according to instrumentation and intention. Thus, the first two discs cover the small band recordings originally issued under the album titles of Coast Concert, Jazz Ultimate and Big T's Dixieland Band, while the two remaining discs umbrella the studio band showcase albums, This Is Teagarden, Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual and Shades Of Night, which by virtue of their thematic programs and larger instrumentations fall into a different category than the foregoing group.

Although there is much to be said for the quality of performance on the orchestral sessions, the best all-out jazz playing is unquestionably on the first two all-star combo dates. Under Bobby Hackett's leadership, Coast Concert was recorded by an eight-piece band composed of such widely experienced Hollywood-based jazzmen as clarinetist Matty Matlock, drummer Nick Fatool and veteran trombonist Abe Lincoln, a skilled technician whose brash exuberance best serves to underline Teagarden's superior taste, tone and ideas. Except for two ballads, "New Orleans" and "I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plans," the playlist consists exclusively of dependable 1920s jam warhorses, all of which swing in time-honored fashion. A notable inclusion from this October 1955 session is the previously unissued "St. James Infirmary," one of Tea's best known set pieces.

Jazz Ultimate may have the edge on the earlier album, though, for not only are Hackett and Teagarden the only brassmen, but the ensembles benefit from the presence of two top-flight New York reedmen, Peanuts Hucko and Ernie Caceres, who, besides playing tenor and baritone saxes, respectively, also split the clarinet responsibilities. This September 1957 session also includes alternative mono takes on four of the 11 tunes: "Indiana," "'S Wonderful," "Mama's Gone, Goodbye" and "55th And Broadway," thereby providing an additional inducement for completist collectors, since the differences in solos and other details are considerable. Maintaining the swinging pulse throughout are Eddie Condon regulars Gene Schroeder, Jack Lesberg and Buzzy Drootin, while the acoustic rhythm guitar is played by ringer Billy Bauer.

The final small band album is the least effective of the three, and primarily because of its over-reliance on tightly arranged ensembles and the stodgy time generated by the bass and drums. With its three-horn front line, the instrumentation is theoretically ideal for free-wheeling ensemble blowing, but this working sextet is at best merely polished, its only impressive soloists being the leader and pianist Don Ewell. The other hornmen, trumpeter Dick Oakley and clarinetist Jerry Fuller, play competently enough but with little display of emotional involvement, and while the trombonist never veers from his customarily high performance standards, it is equally obvious that, like several other great soloists in jazz, he too required that extra spark of inspiration found only in the company of his peers.

Of the orchestral albums, This is Teagarden spotlights the trombonist/singer on 12 numbers associated with his earlier triumphs, while the second finds him maximizing the effects of 13 familiar spirituals, both true and faux, in a similar setting. What with its danceable rhythms and soft cushion of oboe, flutes, and clarinets, Shades Of Night represents a production move toward the mood music market, but because of Teagarden's balladic artistry it is clearly more than that. In addition to the original 12 tracks, Mosaic also provides alternative mono takes on "Diane," "Autumn Leaves," and "Junk Man," making this a valuable complement to anyone's Teagarden collection. One of the most remarkably consistent performers in jazz history, Jack Teagarden never played less than flawlessly and, when in the right company, frequently set standards for creativity and instrumental brilliance that to this day remain beyond the grasp of most. - Jack Sohmer

Originally published in January/February 1997
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