Provocateur Pianist Journeys From Ukraine to Brooklyn and Back

Vadim Neselovskyi Poised on Brink of Jazz Stardom

Piano Man: Vadim Neselovskyi recently returned from a tour of Russia.
Wolfgang Kleber
Piano Man: Vadim Neselovskyi recently returned from a tour of Russia.

By Phillip Lutz

Published December 19, 2013, issue of December 20, 2013.
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Stuck in his spartan Brooklyn studio on a warm November day, pianist and composer Vadim Neselovskyi seemed a little restless. He had just returned from a six-city tour of Russia and his native Ukraine — a tour on which he and his musical partner, the noted horn player Arkady Shilkloper, packed houses from Moscow to Belaya Tserkov — and already seemed eager to return to those warm crowds and cold climes.

But back in the States, he had two albums to promote, a solo tour of Korea to plan and a working band, Agricultural Dreams, to attend to, as well as a longer term Holocaust project to pull together. Add to that his teaching duties at Berklee College of Music in Boston — where he would also be performing with the vibraphone great Gary Burton — and another trip to his old stomping grounds was, for the moment, not in the cards.

Neselovskyi popped his CD “Last Snow,” a collaboration with Shilkloper, into the computer. Out came the plaintive title tune, a powerfully evocative minor key ode to youthful endings. And as the music filled the space, the mild air suddenly seemed chilly, the hum of cars beneath his window became

the rush of the wind, and the stark white walls in the sparsely appointed room seemed almost to transform themselves into blizzard conditions. He was home. For Neselovskyi, 36, home is where the music is. Long resigned to a peripatetic existence, he has, by necessity as much as design, spent more than half his life in a state of semipermanent flux as a musician from the former Soviet Union, and a Jewish one at that, trying to forge a career in the fractured post-Soviet world.

As a lean boy in the port city of Odessa, he was a dual prodigy, a teenage student of physics at the university and composition at the conservatory. Music became his primary interest, which he fed by shadowing local improvisers and acquiring black market jazz records smuggled in by sailors.

When the Soviet Union imploded, the records became more easily available. But there was less money to buy them, what with the hardships attendant to the rise of a market economy. Those hardships sparked heightened nationalistic sentiment, which hit home when his father became the object of anti-Semitic scapegoating at work and saw his paycheck shrink.

“I got my first gig in Odessa and I was making more money than he was,” Neselovskyi said.

At age 17, two years into his studies at the Odessa conservatory, Neselovksyi and his family packed up and left Odessa in a bus bound for Germany, following an alcohol-soaked farewell. He has memorialized that night in a tune adapted from a Russian coachman’s song, which, hunched over the piano — one of five keyboards that constitute his apartment’s décor — he delivered with a bleary melancholy.


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