Ukrainian Pianist Defies Labels


Vadim Neselovskyi has one particularly vivid memory of a homecoming in his native Ukraine.

Now a highly regarded jazz pianist living in Brooklyn who will be playing in town on April 25, he was not quite 20 in 1997, living in Dortmund. On this occasion, he recalls, “I took a bus from Odessa to Kherson (a four-hour ride) and was sitting close to the driver, who began sharing his concerns with me about Eduard Hurwitz, Odessa’s [Jewish] mayor at the time, and all the Jews in general.” After listening to the driver complaining bitterly about the takeover of the country by the Jews, Neselovskyi said with proud vehemence, “I’m a Jew.”

He drily recalls now, “That certainly destroyed the friendly atmosphere that we had had.”

Before Neselovskyi and his family left the former Soviet Union, such an assertive statement of his identity would have damaged more than the conversational mood.

“We were reminded that we were Jewish all the time by our non-Jewish friends and teachers,” he recalls with a touch of irony. “It was stamped on your papers, ‘Nationality: Jewish.’”

Since the Soviet Union essentially had banned religious practice, Neselovskyi says he “discovered [his] Jewishness through anti-Semitism more than any religious tradition in our family.” His parents never practiced Judaism, but all four of his grandparents did, albeit secretly.

“It wasn’t the coolest thing to advertise,” he notes. “I would see a candle burning in my grandmother’s home and not know what it was. Today I know it was for Sukkot.”

One other memory of grandma’s Jewish identity will be familiar to most Jews of a certain generation. “My grandmother spoke Yiddish so I wouldn’t understand what she was saying,” he says, laughing.

Despite the pitfalls of being a Soviet Jew, Neselovskyi’s talent was too large to be denied. He was admitted to the famous music conservatory in Odessa (officially the Odessa National A. V. Nezhdanova Academy of Music) at 15, the youngest student in the school’s history.

Asked about that achievement, he shrugs it off.

“It was only possible because they allowed me to do my last two years of high school classes in a single year,” he says. “So I was able to enter college at 15.”

A brilliant classical student, he was simultaneously drawn to jazz and pop, but his schooling in Odessa was cut short when the family was able to emigrate. Then it was a logical next step for him to exchange Dortmund for the States, conservatory studies for the Berklee College of Music and classical studies for jazz. It was at Berklee, where he is now on the faculty, that Neselovskyi composed and played on a promotional CD produced by the jazz guitar great Pat Metheny. That led to his discovery by vibraphonist Gary Burton, who hired the young expat for his band, an association that brought Neselovskyi considerable attention from the jazz press.

Neselovskyi is understandably reluctant to be pigeonholed as a jazz artist.

“I’m trying to create music that is not identifiable as strictly jazz or pop or classical,” he says. “I want not to be tied to any stylistic label. That’s what I’m going for. What got me involved with jazz so deeply, when I reflect on my favorite artists — Keith Jarrett, Oregon, for instance — is that they always have that open quality when you listen to them. The purpose of the word jazz is so that [marketing] people can put the music on the right shelf. But there are no more shelves.”

The piano style he has evolved is a pointillistic reimagining of ECM artists like Jarrett, deft and quick, assertive but not pushy, a tad cerebral but not without warmth. On his new recording, “Music for September,” he even reveals a pleasant singing voice, sort of a husky baritone version of Chet Baker’s (without the cigarettes, booze and drugs that ravaged Baker’s instrument). You can hear all the facets of his training and his listening, but the individual voice is never overwhelmed; perhaps this is because the protean nature of his musical personality is not the result of conscious decisions.

“I think it’s seamless; it’s like language,” he says. “It would be hard to trace back how I developed Russian or English; the language I speak is a product of everything I experience. The music is just the language I speak — being born in Ukraine; listening to my mother who is a classical pianist when I was growing up; discovering Michael Jackson and trying to play all those chords; starting to have composition lessons with a rather eccentric teacher who introduced me to [the forward-thinking American composers] George Crumb and John Cage before Rachmaninoff. They become part of who you are, and you can’t divide them anymore.”

By contrast, assimilating the rudiments of Jewish identity has been a self-conscious learning process, Neselovskyi admits.

“I’m still not religious,” he says, “But I’m processing the whole past of my nation.”

Vadim Neselovskyi’s new solo CD, “Music for September,” produced by Fred Hersch, is available on the Sunnyside label. Neselovskyi will celebrate its release on Thursday, April 26 at Kitano (66 Park Ave. at East 38th Street) with sets at 8 and 10 p.m. For information, call (212) 885-7000 or go to