Monday, June 27, 2011

Zoot Sims, Phil Woods... and Eddie Costa: Jazz Mission to Moscow

In 1962, in the middle of the Cold War, with Kennedy in Washington and Khrushchev in Moscow, and just weeks away from the missile crisis in Cuba, Benny Goodman embarked on a tour of the USSR with a top-notch big band: Joe Newman and Jimmy Maxwell on trumpets, Willie Dennis on trombone, Phil Woods, Jerry Dodgion, and Zoot Sims in the reed section, and a rhythm department comprising by John Bunch, Teddy Wilson, Victor Feldman, Bill Crow and Mel Lewis (Bill and Mel were the beating heart of Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band). Originally the band was going to play a repertory formed of new arrangements commissioned to people like Tadd Dameron, as well as the older stuff that made Goodman the "King of Swing".

This tour has gone down in history as the perfect example of Benny Goodman's quirkiness, to put it mildly. His gradual refusal to play the newer repertoire, his shunning of any soloists who got a round of applause... even the album that was subsequently published by RCA doesn't make justice, apparently, to the music that was played for the Russian audiences.

Producer Jack Lewis had worked — incidentally? — for RCA but he was now with Colpix, a new record label set up by Columbia Pictures. As bassist Bill Crow tells in his own website:

On the day we got back from Russia, Jack Lewis grabbed most of the band for a quick record date for Colpix, an album called Jazz Mission to Moscow. Victor Feldman had flown home to California, and Teddy Wilson and John Bunch had stayed in Paris, so Jack got Eddie Costa to play piano on the date.

Lewis's idea was to get a free ride on the publicity Goodman's tour was getting. According to Billboard, the recording session (July 12, 1962) was rushed, as was the production of vinyl and jackets and the record was expected to be available by the first week of August.

Jazz Mission to Moscow
The liner notes tell the story of a bunch of angry, young musicians eager to get back at Goodman, and Lewis provided the perfect opportunity. The band simply smokes. This is the kind of modern swing music that doesn't really fit in the official history of jazz, played by musicians for whom, after all, swing was the soundtrack of their childhood, while bebop got to them in their teenage years. Al Cohn's arrangements are a little miracle: for starters, he makes this "ten-tette" sound like a true big band; he also manages to make something interesting and surprising from an old classic like "Let's Dance". His work here is just superb, typical of those years (it's interesting to compare this album with the things he did for Bob Brookmeyer's Gloomy Sunday LP, for instance).

This is a session that verges on perfection. Interestingly, the star was not in the Goodman band that made the tour. This is "Mission to Moscow", the opening track of the album:

Eddie Costa was known for this kind of rumbling piano, and his knack for exploring the lower side of the scale. Here, as in other recordings in this part of his career, namely his own House of Blue Lights (Dot, 1959) and Shelly Manne's 2, 3, 4 (Impulse, 1962), he shows an almost orchestral approach to his solos, doing his own calls and responses (here, in "Let's Dance"), with a very conscious use of dynamics along several choruses. For fans of Costa, this is even more interesting because he manages an engaging solo in "The Sochi Boatman", a plaintive mid-tempo ballad, the kind of material that's not so abundant in his recordings.

Around this time Costa, who was extremely busy in the recording studios, seemed to be expanding his approach to jazz piano, which makes this occasion even more poignant. Like Crow explains, this was Eddie Costa's last jazz record date. He died in a car accident two weeks later, in the early hours of July 28th, 1962.

EMI-Japan has just released this on CD as Zoot Sims & Phil Woods: Jazz Mission to Moscow (TOCJ-50064 — a straight copy of the original 30-minute LP, no extra tracks). It's also available on Spotify and (except one track) on YouTube.

Bill Crow and Eddie Costa,
at the Jazz Mission to Moscow session

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