The primitive Bolshevik slogans about jazz and the betrayal of the motherland no longer worked. Amongst the members of the Soviet cultural elite the term ‘Soviet jazz’ took hold and it had to be ‘better’ than the American variety (by the way, the term ‘Soviet rock’ did not exist even though music groups were being formed, similar in their make-up to Western groups – they were called vocal instrumental ensembles or vocal instrumental youth groups). The political powers, with their tendency to exercise absolute control of the arts, took responsibility for the musicians playing improvisational music… This area was strategically and cautiously entrusted to functionaries in the All-Union Young Communist League.
Already at the beginning of the 1960s – from 1963 – there was for a while a so-called youth café in Vilnius (the address now would be 22 Vilnius Street), an unofficial jazz club, the activities of which were minutely observed and overseen by Soviet political officers, functionaries from the Communist Party and the KGB. Another meeting place for local and foreign intellectuals, artists and dissidents was Neringa, a café in the city centre. Jazz was played on the small modern stage in the evenings, amongst the musicians were two of the future members of the Trio, that is Ganelin and Tarasov. By the end of the 1960s jazz music was no longer being played in these places.
Unlike in Lithuania, in the 1960s and 1970s there existed a diverse, semi-underground jazz scene in various Russian towns – in Moscow, Leningrad, Gorky, Novosibirsk and elsewhere, a scene which had a proportionately larger number of adherents of this genre. During the Soviet period this became a way of life, a kind of refuge for people of a freer spirit, a world in which the form of communication was the language of Aesop. The culture of those who refused to conform was that of the underground or semi-underground – art, poetry, music, and eagerly read samizdat literature. All the same, the Baltic countries in the consciousness of people of those times remained more Western, marked by the experience of independence in the interwar period. According to contemporaries, creative work there was hindered to a lesser degree…
The social processes which took place in the Soviet Union from the times of the Khrushchev Thaw, which began after Stalin’s death, up to Gorbachev’s perestroika, together with the underground youth movements and protests, provoked the emergence of new artistic expressions. The composition of ensembles, in particular those playing jazz was formed with musicians migrating from one Soviet republic to another. This exchange of performers encouraged forms and opportunities of a new and different quality of making music, inspiring creativity.
From 1971 on the musicians would prepare a whole new programme every year, revealing their newest creative endeavours. Their first programmes (Consilium, Triptych, Postludium, Ad libitum, and Ex libris) became the object of discussion amongst critics and their audiences because of their newness and impact. In 1974 the Ganelin-Chekasin-Tarasov Trio was granted the status of being affiliated with the philharmonic: it became one of the first Soviet jazz collectives during times that were unfavourable to jazz music and was out of prudency called the Contemporary Chamber Music Ensemble of the Lithuanian State Philharmonic Society. This was not only the first Lithuanian but the first Soviet jazz ensemble to visit the countries of Eastern and Western Europe but also America, the homeland of jazz. Over time, and in particular during the period of perestroika, after the persistent invitations of foreign festival organisers and concert agencies and negotiations with Gosconcert, the only organiser of tours abroad during Soviet times that had the final word as to who could or could not represent Soviet culture abroad (only many years later did the musicians find out when and to which places they had been invited), the trio went not on an ideological mission but to appear at prestigious jazz festivals or venues (Jazz Jamboree, Pori Jazz, North Sea Jazz Festival, Jazz Yatra, etc.). The ensemble was well known not only in the Soviet Union: they were also written about by influential international jazz critics in the West. And for good reason.
The trio’s programmes An Album for Young People, Catalogue, and Home Music are a testament to their propensity for theatricality and their desire to enhance the impact of their music with visual effects. The trio were also masters when it came to playing in the style of traditional jazz but they never imitated or copied the styles of other musicians. A good example of that could be their “Mackie Messer” (Mack the Knife), one of the most popular numbers in their concert repertoire. The trio would often play it for an encore and created a real masterpiece in miniature from Kurt Weill’s simple ditty, with their version called a ‘non-standard standard’.
In leafing through the pages of Vladimir Tarasov’s book Trio (Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1998) one is amazed not only by the meticulously described activities of the ensemble, the correspondence with representatives of the world’s jazz elite, but also by the fact that almost all the people played an important role on the trio’s creative path are mentioned. The author writes about the paradoxes of Soviet existence, the crude ignorance of functionaries working in the field of culture, the psychological pressure they were subjected to by the mandatory KGB overseer, given the sarcastic name of ‘coat’, who accompanied the musicians on their tours.
Invited more than once to Poland and after long negotiations with the Ministry of Culture of the USSR, the trio finally took part in the Jazz Jamboree festival in 1976. The programme Poco a poco garnered the highest praise from foreign critics and listeners. The Polish press wrote: ‘The biggest surprise was the concert given by the Soviet jazz trio. We have waited several years for its appearance and we were not disappointed. The Contemporary Chamber Music Group of the Lithuanian State Philharmonic Society […] is one of the most interesting collectives on the musical map of Europe. It is intuitive music, free jazz with links to tradition’ (Express Wieczorny, 03 11 1976). The Polish record company Muza released a fragment of the trio’s performance at the festival that year, and before that Pronit had already released a programme recorded in Moscow in 1975.
In 1976 Con anima, the first programme specially adapted for a studio recording, was recorded at the Vilnius Recording Studio (a branch of Melodiya, the state-owned major record company of the Soviet Union) and released in 1977. The trio felt and knew very well the difference between what was required in a recording studio and at live concerts: they would specially and very carefully adapt their programmes for recordings, while their concerts would always be marked by theatricality and spontaneity. The second programme recorded at the Vilnius studio, Concerto grosso (1978), caused real confusion amongst the members of the Melodiya arts board in Moscow – the radical quality of the musical concept simply stunned the management which was intolerant of anything avant-garde. A document was sent out to Melodiya’s branches requiring the control of the ideological and artistic level of recorded music, while the album Concerto grosso was released only three years later – in 1981.
More than one official request from foreign producers to release the music of Ganelin, Chekasin and Tarasov beyond the borders of the Soviet Union was categorically rejected by the management of Melodiya. From the point of view of the music business today this was a strange and incomprehensible position to take – after all, the West paid in hard currency for the work (concerts and recordings) of musicians from Eastern Europe like they did for oil. It is interesting to note that during the Soviet period the organisation Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga (International Book), strictly controlled by the KGB, would put out books and recordings for sale internationally that were of better appearance and quality than those for domestic consumption without the knowledge of the authors and performers. The strategy of the suitcase with a false bottom comes to mind – there is more in it than declared. The Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga spider’s web encompassed not only Europe but also the most far-flung and strangest distribution points. It is known that the organisation signed no agreements with the creators as regards catalogues or contracts nor made them public… Mostly they were recordings of concerts and probably semi-legal, with titles in preponderance like Live in East Germany, Leningrad, Moscow, West Berlin… From the point of view of the authors and related rights these publishing activities were not legal but the performers never made any claims against the record label. Symbolically, one can compare the activities and services to free jazz coming out of Eastern Europe with one of the oldest American jazz record labels Blue Note Records in the 1950s and 1960s when this legendary company began to release albums of avant-garde permeated free jazz music. It was my pleasure to work with Leonid Feigin in putting together the compilation album Lithuanian Jazz 1929–1980 (Semplice Records, 2003) which had on it two of the trio’s compositions from releases by Leo Records. We met in December 2003 in Vilnius when Ganelin, Chekasin and Tarasov put on a unique concert at the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Society. It so happened that the above-mentioned album was launched at the press conference before the concert. Leo Records hoped that the trio would begin to revive their concert activities but after Ganelin emigrated to Israel in 1987 the musicians’ creative collaboration was not renewed.
Even though they have not renewed creative collaboration on a permanent basis (apart from some rare reunion concerts), the experience from the times when they were an ensemble is being developed and transformed in the on-going activities of the members of the trio: they play solo and together with various jazz, classical and ethnic musicians, as well as composing music for theatre and film. Ganelin and Tarasov have written some substantial oratorio type works. Tarasov brought together the large Lithuanian Art Orchestra, with a changing formation and musicians of different types; similarly, Chekasin has always appeared with large diverse collectives (made up mostly of students) whose programmes were not infrequently marked by theatrical extravagance. Besides that, Tarasov today is known as a visual artist with sound still playing an important role in his installations.
Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka
 Samizdat was a key form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc in which individuals reproduced censored and underground publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader.
 It is of a particular interest that the label itself was founded (in 1979) after Leonid Feigin obtained a tape of the GTCh Trio, as Andrey Henkin calls it, ‘Russia’s most progressive import’: ‘When no labels expressed interest in releasing it he decided to form his own company. Feigin realized that he needed to establish some credibility before releasing something as unorthodox as Ganelin so he began with two releases by Chicago pianist Amina Claudine Myers, saxophonist and son-of-Ukrainian immigrants Keshavan Maslak, and then Ganelin. The first three releases were both prophetic and indicative of Feigin’s conscious internationalism or lack of it.’ (Henkin 2014). For more on Feigin’s views see https://www.allaboutjazz.com/leo-records-by-andrey-henkin.php/.