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A Ukrainian jazz pianist’s ode to Odesa

Though Vadim Neselovksyi left Odesa when he was 17, he has returned to Ukraine many times since.Handout

Vadim Neselovskyi may not have lived in Odesa in decades, but the Ukrainian Black Sea port is as close to him as a beloved childhood lullaby. His family fled in 1995, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the newly independent Ukraine’s descent into chaos. But the pianist and composer has returned many times, most notably for a series of concerts in 2017, following the Russian annexation of Crimea. His latest disc, to be released Friday, “Odesa: A Musical Walk Through a Legendary City,” reaffirms his deep connection to his home country and home city.

In a career that has spanned jazz (most notably with the Gary Burton quintet), classical, and even prog rock, it is possibly his most autobiographical, most personal work. He plays a solo recital of the 55-minute suite Saturday at Berklee’s David Friend Recital Hall. Proceeds from the album and the recital will go to Ukrainian humanitarian relief efforts.


Neselovksyi famously entered Odesa Conservatory at 15, the youngest person to do so. He continued his studies in Germany and then the United States where, at Berklee, he met Burton, and became a key member of his quintet, as both player and composer. But Ukraine has remained central to his identity.

“I’ve been going to Ukraine since 2005,” Neselovskyi, 44, tells me over Zoom from his mother’s home in Dortmund, Germany, on a visit from his current home in New York. “I’ve developed this beautiful friendship with the youth symphony orchestra in Lviv. We were actually judging jazz competitions online days before the war. We were discussing an exchange program with the Munich Conservatory and possibly also having Berklee [where he is an associate professor of piano] involved. So my connection has been very strong. Maybe that’s why I also took the war straight to my heart. I could never imagine that anything like this could happen so close to me.”


Though Neselovksyi left Odesa when he was 17, his memories as he describes them in the album’s liner notes are vivid — the bustling “Odesa Railway Station,” the “magical” icy mornings of “Winter in Odesa,” the historical backdrop of the “Potemkin Stairs,” immortalized by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in his legendary “Battleship Potemkin” (1925).

Using Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” as an organizing template for his “walk” through Odesa, Neselovskyi showcases his prodigious piano technique but also his affecting lyricism, his ability to craft complex rhythms into driving grooves, and his knack for great melodies in any context. Sometimes melodies alternate with Tchaikovskyian brio, as on “Odesa Railway Station,” or conjure ancient Eastern European folk tunes, as in “Jewish Dance.” That last is part of a suite within the suite, reflecting on Ukraine’s history in the Holocaust and Neselovskyi’s own secular Jewish background.

“One of the greatest living Ukrainian composers, Valentin Silvestrov, said once, ‘Melody is a face on the body of music.’ I like that. If the face is memorable, you will never forget this person. Some people who work for the KGB, for example, they have professionally unmemorable faces. They’re not supposed to be remembered. I want my music to be remembered. I want you as a listener, as you leave the space, to be able maybe even to hum something, no matter how complex the music is.”

Jazz listeners will not note many “jazz” chords or swing rhythms on the new disc. On his breakthrough 2013 solo piano album, “Music for September” (produced by jazz pianist Fred Hersch), even the straight-up classical pieces — a Chopin mazurka, a Bach three-part invention — were food for jazz improvisation, alongside “jazzy jazz” pieces (to use a Hersch term) such as Neselovskyi’s “Birdlike.” But on “Odesa” you’d be forgiven if you didn’t detect any improvisation at all.


“There is a lot of improvisation in it,” Neselovskyi counters. “The only way for you to be able to tell that is to go to two or three concerts and hear the difference. I play it different every night. And that’s why I’m thanking God that I’m a jazz musician. It would not be exciting for me to play 16 times in a row the same thing, note for note.

“In terms of classical or not classical, jazz or prog rock, all these words never had much meaning to me as a composer. I was simply always interested in trying to tell the most compelling story, trying to understand what the idea wants, and how far can I take it. How can I tell the most profound story through music?”

As for the music’s mix of formal complexity and emotional directness, Neselovskyi likes to recall something one of his Berklee students said to him. “She told me, ‘Vadim, your music is simple.’ And then she shook her head. ‘But not simple.’” Neselovskyi laughs. “I loved it. I thought it was the best compliment.”



Performed by Vadim Neselovskyi. At David Friend Recital Hall, 921 Boylston St. June 18 at 8 p.m. $20. www.etix.com/ticket/p/7119068

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.