When pianist Vadim Neselovskyi played at a benefit for Ukraine at Roulette in April, he brought something that the other participants, even major figures like Fred Hersch and John Zorn, could not: a life spent growing up in the country by the Black Sea, in particular the ancient port town of Odesa. In fact, the suite that he played that night is a tribute to this glamorous, beloved, often strife-torn city.
As Neselovskyi observes in the notes to his new recording of that suite, Odesa: A Musical Walk through a Legendary City, “In Western Europe and also in the US, almost everyone has heard of Odesa, and yet not many people really known much about it.” The album seeks to provide a musical bridge to the city; all revenue from sales of it and related concerts, some of which Neselovskyi will be undertaking this summer, will benefit Ukraine humanitarian efforts.
Odesa’s history is extraordinary. There was a Greek settlement in this location as early as 600 BC. It existed for many years as a part of the Ottoman Empire and was given its current name by Catherine the Great in 1795. In the nineteenth century, Odesa was a popular resort town, with exquisite Mediterranean-style buildings, though it suffered bombing during the Crimean War. A busy harbor, populated by sailors from nearby and distant locations, gave the city a cosmopolitan sheen; Odesa even became known for its own wry style of humor. It grew into a major center of Jewish life, though the city was regularly a target of pogroms in the early twentieth century and later massacres during the Second World War.
Neselovskyi’s own story interweaves with the more recent history of Odesa. He was born there in 1977, into a musical family. A child prodigy, he was the youngest student ever accepted into the Odesa Conservatory. By the age of fourteen, he had witnessed first-hand the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the beginnings of Ukraine’s difficult passage into independence—a status that now hangs on a knife’s edge. He left after graduating, first to live and study in Germany, then to the United States to further his education at the Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute. He currently resides in Brooklyn.
Though trained in classical piano, he gravitated toward jazz early, showing a remarkable facility in his playing and joining the group of brilliant vibes player Gary Burton for a decade, along with rising guitarist Julian Lage. Burton encouraged Neselovskyi to write music and highlighted several of his compositions in the group; the pianist’s “Late Night Sunrise” has become something of a contemporary standard. Neselovskyi has also recorded the last book of Zorn’s Masada series, Da’at, in tandem with pianist Craig Taborn.
Neselovskyi’s musical portrait of Odesa was written before the current invasion of Ukraine, and comprises a highly cinematic, atmospheric set of songs. As a composer, he has created a wide-ranging portrait of the city, one that allows the listener to travel through various places and times in its history. The journey begins with “Odessa Railway Station,” as Neselovskyi uses the low-end rumble of the piano to evoke the thrum of trains, with this giving way to a sprightly, rhapsodic take on the station’s comings and goings. His playing is commanding and assured, with a conservatory-trained breadth of reference and a reminder of Slavic keyboard mastery. With “Winter in Odesa,” he evokes the climatic peculiarity of the city, which is given to ice storms that render the streets impassible but cover the wide boulevards and their romantic architecture with a thin, shimmering glaze.
Neselovskyi takes as his next subject the most famous landmark in Odesa: the incredibly long stone staircase known as the Potemkin Steps. These were the indelible backdrop for a brutal scene in Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s pathbreaking 1925 silent film, in which citizens are gunned down and strewn across their great expanse, and a baby carriage tips precariously, suggesting everyone’s fate in times of grave conflict. The pianist conveys their inherent drama with jutting, contrapuntal movement. He follows this composition with the tender “Acacia Trees,” evoking the delicate white blossoms and sweet scent that cover parts of the city in springtime.
After an ode to his training and coming of age at the conservatory, he recalls the presence of Jewish culture on life in Odesa through three works, highlighted by the sepulchral “Odesa 1941,” which commemorates the killings carried out by Romanian troops at the behest of the Nazis. Neselovskyi recounts that the Holocaust was never discussed at school; in a typically European twist of fate, he only learned about it after emigrating to Germany in 1995 as a “Jewish quota” refugee. In fact, after living in Germany for several years, he returned there to make this recording, at the brilliantly pure Sendsaal studio in Bremen.
Neselovskyi concludes the recording with a tribute to the Soviet rock star Viktor Tsoi—a heroic figure to his generation—as well as a hopeful tribute to his native city entitled “The Renaissance of Odesa.” Though the town he grew up in has seen waves of invaders over the centuries, and was in disrepair during his childhood, it has managed to retain its beauty and charm—until now. As Neselovskyi writes, “The future is uncertain, as bombs and rockets fall on houses, hospitals, schools, kindergartens, and temples.” This extraordinary statement about everyday devastation calls to mind Pablo Neruda’s poem “I Explain a Few Things,” in which he invokes the times during the Spanish Civil War that “thugs with planes… / came through the sky to slaughter children, / and through the streets the blood of children / flowed easily, like the blood of children.” No metaphor can fully convey the horror, so the author simply repeats the phrase, in almost a stutter of incomprehension.
Like Neselovskyi, another artist, the poet Ilya Kaminsky—also born in Odesa in 1977 and currently living in California—often seeks to relate something of the tragic nature of his birthplace. Deaf since childhood from a misdiagnosed illness, he has an uncanny way with language. His poem, “Author’s Prayer,” from the collection Dancing in Odesa, is a hope against hope, the notes of someone who has survived cataclysm and wonders what else he can do but write a poem, a prayer, an elegy, and raise his words, as Neselovskyi does his music, as a cry against the darkness:
If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,
I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.
If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man
who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.
Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking “What year is it?”
I can dance in my sleep and laugh
in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,
I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak
of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say
is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.