For pianist Vadim Neselovskyi, Ukraine war adds urgency to his most personal work
During his first few years in the United States, as a virtuoso pianist and composer studying at the Berklee College of Music two decades ago, Vadim Neselovskyi was often asked about his origins. "I would say, 'I'm from Odesa,' or even 'I'm from Russia,' " he recalls, "because nobody knew what Ukraine was."
His evocative new solo piano suite, Odesa: A Musical Walk Through a Legendary City, enters the world at quite a different moment. Mostly recorded in 2020, long before the current Russian invasion, it's an elegant love letter to his father, a Ukrainian Jew who was dying of cancer as Neselovskyi composed the music. Because it's also a portrait of the culturally rich city of his youth, currently the target of a Russian naval blockade, the album has other reasons to resonate in a poignant key.
Neselovskyi was born in Odesa, the Southern Ukrainian port city, one month after the 1977 Constitution of the Soviet Union was ratified by the Communist party under Leonid Brezhnev. "I grew up basically in a dictatorship," Neselovskyi tells NPR, speaking over video from his mother's home in Dortmund, Germany, where his family moved when he was 17. His early life in Odesa, a cosmopolitan city on the Black Sea, had shaped his foundation as a classical piano prodigy. "Waltz of Odesa Conservatory," a piece on the new album, recalls his experience as the youngest student in that institution's venerable history.
As he settled into life in the west, Neselovskyi began to understand the freedoms, both civic and creative, that he had never known. By the time he arrived at Berklee, he was as serious about jazz improvisation as he was about classical composition. His synthesis of those two elements, at that stage in his development, instantly caught the ear of Gary Burton, an illustrious vibraphonist who was Berklee's Dean of Curriculum at the time. Burton, a former child prodigy himself, came up in the 1960s alongside future piano titans Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. Even against that imposing yardstick, he says, Neselovskyi stood out: "He's able to drift back and forth between classical and jazz more seamlessly than anyone I have heard before."
Burton formed a group around the considerable talents of Neselovskyi and several other Berklee students at the time: guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer James Williams. This quintet released a 2005 album, Next Generation, under Burton's name. When I caught the band at Birdland the following year, I took note of Neselovskyi's delicate touch at the piano, along with his deft hand as an arranger.
At the time, Ukraine was in the midst of a groundswell of democratic protests known as the Orange Revolution. Neselovskyi was paying close attention from afar, and he noticed that others were, too. "I remember, I had a duo concert with Esperanza Spalding at the Sony Center in New York," he says, "and at the reception, that was the first time that people were saying: 'So, you're from Ukraine.' I started to realize that Ukraine is becoming something more than just this obscure post-Soviet Republic, you know? And then I started coming to Ukraine regularly, and I saw that my friends were experiencing something very new — this feeling that democracy means having something to say about the way the country is going."
Neselovskyi continued his studies at the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance, working with mentors like Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock. And he amassed other prominent admirers — like Fred Hersch, who produced his 2013 solo piano album, Music For September, declaring him "one of the greatest pianist/composers out there right now."
By that time, Neselovskyi had established a deeper relationship with his homeland, as well as a position on the piano faculty at Berklee. When Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, he recalls, "I happened to have a student at Berklee whose father is the main opposition journalist in Ukraine. So I would get the news firsthand. And my God, I really got involved." He sees this as the moment "where I perhaps really became Ukrainian."
Neselovskyi's new suite reflects this heightened cultural identification, sometimes in autobiographical terms; a piece titled "My First Rock Concert" is about precisely that, incorporating a scrap of melody by the Russian rock star Viktor Tsoi, whom Neselovskyi saw as a teenager in Odesa's Shevchenko Park. Elsewhere the references are less personal, as in "Potemkin Stairs," a frenetically humming composition inspired not only by the landmark stairway in Odesa but also the iconic sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin.
Another piece, "Odesa 1941," evokes a moment with chilling parallels to our own. "Back in 1941, Odesa was occupied by Romanian troops under the guidance of the SS, the Nazis," Neselovskyi says. "And now the city has been attacked from the other side — but the feelings, the emotions are the same. The only difference is that we were looking at black-and-white photography, and now we're looking at the video footage." He brings this conflict to life with a thunderous sweep of atonal explosions at the piano, tapering off to an eerie, decaying calm.
As a Ukrainian watching horrific events unfold over the last several months, Neselovskyi felt the understandable urge to go home, take up arms and join the fight. "Then I realized that by playing one concert and sometimes raising 50,000 euros, I can do more than I would as a very inexperienced soldier," he says. Neselovskyi has donated the proceeds from his new album and concert revenue to humanitarian relief in Ukraine. Since the war began, he has performed dozens of benefits in the United States and in Europe, where his bookings have ranged from jazz clubs to churches to refugee centers. "Everywhere, Ukrainian refugees always came to me with tears," he says. "Because for them, this was the music about what they just experienced."
As a result of his commitment, Neselovskyi has raised north of $100,000 and counting, all before the album's release this Friday. It's a remarkable sum for a jazz pianist to contribute, but he's aware of how dire the need is, and will continue to be.
"I know that it's 'before' and 'after' for me right now," he says. "It might as well take basically the rest of my life — and processing what's happened will take all of us the rest of our lives, I think."
Vadim Neselovskyi will perform on Friday at the Salmagundi Club in New York, and on Saturday at the David Friend Recital Hall in Boston; see his website for details.
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