For pianist Vadim Neselovskyi, Ukraine war adds urgency to his most personal work On a new album, Odesa, written in tribute to his father, the pianist, former child prodigy and composer also paints a portrait of the album's namesake, currently in the midst of a Russian invasion.

For pianist Vadim Neselovskyi, Ukraine war adds urgency to his most personal work

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The war in Ukraine has changed the lives of many Ukrainians living abroad. From member station WBGO, Nate Chinen reports on how the Russian invasion brought new urgency to the work of one musician born in Odesa.


NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: The most accomplished Ukrainian jazz musician of his generation is a former child prodigy, now in his mid-40s.

VADIM NESELOVSKYI: My name is Vadim Neselovskyi. I'm a jazz composer and pianist, originally from Odesa, Ukraine, living in New York.

CHINEN: He has a strikingly evocative new solo piano album out this Friday, a suite titled "Odesa: A Musical Walk Through A Legendary City." Recorded before the current war, it's partly a love letter to his father, a Ukrainian Jew who was dying of cancer as Neselovskyi wrote the music. It's also a portrait of the culturally rich city of his youth, which has endured its share of hardship over the years.

NESELOVSKYI: I'm talking about the Second World War in the piece. Back in 1941, it was occupied by Romanian troops under the guidance of the SS, or Nazis, and now Odesa's being attacked from the other side, but the feelings, the emotions are pretty much the same. The only difference is that, you know, we were looking at black-and-white photography and now we're looking at the video footage.

CHINEN: Neselovskyi spoke recently from his mother's home in Dortmund, Germany, where his family moved in 1995, when he was 17. That was just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which means he didn't have much experience living in a free Ukraine. What he did have was a foundation in the musical legacy of Odesa, which includes some of the great classical virtuosos of the 20th century, like violinist and conductor David Oistrakh and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Neselovskyi brought those influences with him when he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, making an almost immediate impression on the conservatory's dean at the time, Gary Burton. A vibraphonist and former prodigy himself, Burton came up in the '60s alongside piano titans Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. He says that even against that yardstick, Neselovskyi was special.

GARY BURTON: He would blend together classical fragmentations of melodies and themes and harmonies with his improvising more seamlessly than I'd ever heard anyone do. So it's almost unfair to compare him to the jazz musicians who occasionally have played some classical music. He actually threads it into his musical world. I noticed it when I heard the Odesa project.


CHINEN: One thing Neselovskyi's new work underscores is the way his cultural identity was partly forged through conflict. He says that when he first came to the United States, he would sometimes tell people he was from Russia because Ukraine was too unfamiliar a reference. That began to change with the Orange Revolution of the mid-2000s, which brought forth democracy through civil resistance. Neselovskyi started making regular trips to Ukraine, establishing a prominence there as a performing artist. And when Russia invaded Crimea...

NESELOVSKYI: My God. I really got involved. So for me, the whole story begins there in 2014. That's where I perhaps really became Ukrainian.

CHINEN: The Russian invasion earlier this year had a similar galvanizing effect. Neselovskyi found himself checking in on friends. He also decided to donate all the proceeds from his new album and concert sales toward humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine. Over the last couple of months, he's performed his Odesa suite dozens of times in the United States and Europe, at jazz clubs, in churches, even in refugee centers.

NESELOVSKYI: Ukrainian refugees always came to me with tears because, for them, this was the music about what they just experienced. You know, I talk to people from Mariupol, and I do have these explosions in my music.


CHINEN: Already through his concert tour and other events, Vadim Neselovskyi has raised more than $100,000 for Ukrainian relief. He hasn't performed in Ukraine since the war began, but he's looking forward to bringing this music home - someday.

NESELOVSKYI: If I have the opportunity to go, I will go without second thought. I can't wait to go back to Odesa, to Kyiv, to Kharkiv. I pray that Mariupol will be won back. Processing what's happened will take basically the rest of my life, will take all of us the rest of our lives.


CHINEN: For NPR News, I'm Nate Chinen.

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