Over the past ten years, Ukrainian pianist Vadim Neselovskyi has built a career out of writing brooding, evocative songs without words that draw equally on jazz, the High Romantic classical tradition and 21st century composition. He takes the inspiration for his new solo album Odesa: A Musical Walk Through a Legendary City – streaming at Bandcamp – from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s a colorful, picturesque, and aptly stormy portrait of the pianist’s home turf.
He opens his salute to the city’s railway station with a turbulent, stygian lefthand, rising to a bouncing but emphatic drive with hints of Tschaikovsky and a bustling minor-key folk dance. As the train moves out of the city, the ride calms and the tormented mood lifts on the wings of Neselovskyi’s righthand accents. Ultimately, the message is hopeful: you can’t keep this train off the rails for long.
Winter in Odesa is a steady, icy stroll, Neselovskyi’s glistening melody rising and falling canonically. Potemkin Stairs, inspired by the famous city landmark, has a thorny, intricate, frequently crosshanded melody, its rippling variations echoing late 70s art-rock as well as Herbie Hancock’s Rockit. Neselovskyi fires off lightning upper-register clusters over a strutting lefthand in Acacia Trees, drawing on a famous movie theme by Odessan composer Isaac Dunaevsky.
There’s similarly rapidfire articulacy but also lingering disquiet in Waltz of Odesa Conservatory, a shout-out to Neselovskyi’s teenage alma mater. October 1941 is an outright chilling tableau that commemorates the massacre of Jews there at the hands of the Nazis: machine gun fire. civilians falling left and right and after a pregnant pause, a stunned wisp of what could be a playground song. It’s one of the most harrowing pieces of music released in recent months.
He lifts the mood with Jewish Dance, a diptych with a bright, allusively chromatic intro that grows more glittery, percussive and North African-flavored. It brings to mind the work of Lebanese composer Tarek Yamani.
My First Rock Concert is Neselovskyi’s playfully contrapuntal, incisively kinetic tribute to defiant Russian rock songwriter Victor Tsoy and his new wave hit Blood Type (and also Jimi Hendrix, maybe).
As he winds up the album, Neselovskyi references Mussorgsky with a couple of brief, grimly bounding interludes, the second to introduce the final cut, The Renaissance of Odesa, a pensive, muted pavane that offers (very, very) guarded hope for the future once the twin nightmare of the Putin invasion and the Zelensky dystopia is over.
Neselovskyi starts a European tour at the end of the month. Those interested in how he plays similarly moody but more postbop-influenced material can catch him as part of drummer Christian Finger‘s trio tomorrow, July 3 at the Blue Note with sets at half past noon and 2:30 PM; cover is $15.