Jazz was hardly welcomed in the Soviet Union for much of the 1950s and 1960s. The most famous US jazz artist to play in Russia during a short lull in anti-jazz sentiment by authorities was Benny Goodman in his famous tour of 1962. That tour was documented on record with the Benny Goodman in Moscow release, but a number of other albums related to that tour, Russia and jazz were also released in 1962 and 1963. Three of these have been collected by the independent Fresh Sounds label and were released at the end of last year under the collective title of Jazz Mission to Moscow, also the title of one of the albums.
This is a double disc set that I confess I bought out of curiosity rather than any expectation that the music itself would be particularly good. However, I was quite wrong. The music contained here, not available for decades in most cases, is actually superb. The first album, Jazz Mission to Moscow, was recorded by ten musicians, most of which had been part of the Goodman tour. The album is a kind of souvenir of their experiences. It features a new number, Mission to Moscow, and then five Russia-related items, most of them either traditional Russian songs or pieces written by Soviet jazz musicians. Recorded in New York in 1962, and featuring Zoot Sims, Phil Woods and Mel Lewis, and arranged by Al Cohn, this is vibrant, exciting West Coast music.
A couple of months later, Victor Feldman, another member of the Goodman tour, recorded an album called Soviet Jazz Themes, this time entirely comprised of pieces written by Russian composers. Again, the band contained well-known names such as Nat Adderley and Joe Zawinul, and again the quality of the material and arrangements are very high. It fills up the remainder of the first disc.
The second disc is not quite so good musically, but still enjoyable and interesting. The album on this CD is Jazz at Liberty, pieces recorded for Radio Liberty for airplay in Russia once the crackdown on jazz had begun once again. The resulting album, released by RKO records, was hardly an epic (it runs at about 20 minutes) but the sound quality is surprisingly good and the music is also worthy – this time featuring Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer and Art Farmer among others. Filling out the disc are four alternate takes from Jazz at Liberty and a short interview with saxophonist Phil Woods.
Fresh Sound Records have really come up with the goods here, as this label so often does. The bringing together of these forgotten albums (unavailable for decades in most cases) on one set is a wonderful idea, the music itself is superb, and the sound quality is great. The 24-page booklet contains new material, original album covers and original liner notes for all albums. This is a set that could so easily have been nothing more than a curio, and yet actually one that will be returned to repeatedly. Well worth the modest investment for anyone interested in this material from either a historical or musical point of view. Great stuff.