Neselovskyi is one of those musicians whose amazing potential – especially as a composer – was spotted ridiculously early. He entered a newly formed elite composition class in his hometown when he was just eight years old. At 14, his compositions were presented abroad by Ukrainian cultural delegations. Then, when he was 17, his family emigrated to Germany.
In his early twenties, he won a full scholarship to Berklee in Boston, where the impact of his arrival is still remembered. Gary Burton, dean of the school at the time, who later included him in his own band, recently said of him: “He blended classical fragments, melodies and harmonies into his improvisation more seamlessly that I had never heard of anyone doing it. . He integrates them into his musical universe.
Neselovskyi was supposed to stay in the United States for just one year. He has now lived there for two decades and has been a faculty member at Berklee for the past 10 years. He lives in New York, counts Fred Hersch as another mentor, and feels his spiritual home today is John Zorn’s club, The Stone.
On Odessa, the “musical world of its own” described by Gary Burton is exactly where Neselovskyi takes us, and right from the start. The opening skirmishes take us into piano territory as violent as anything Prokoviev or even Jean Barraqué could have imagined. But from there, we’re taken straight to a place where we can hear peaceful echoes of Grieg (and indeed Keith Jarrett) at their most lyrical. “My First Rock Concert” confidently takes us through a whole narrative. “Waltz of Odesa Conservatory” is sardonically Soviet, and the hopeful finale, “The Renaissance of Odesa” is utterly moving in Brad Mehldau-ish timeless best. .
The amazing thing about Odessa is that it works on so many levels. First, there is a very strong storyline, which is, of course, poignant. Track titles define each scene in turn. And yet, if heard as “pure music”, the variety of expression and stylistic polymathy taking place is breathtaking. Neselovskyi is not an ivory tower; he was galvanized by the Russian invasions of his country in 2014 and this year; the current live performance series of Odessa has already raised €100,000 for Ukrainian charities.
I met Neselovskyi in April and checked whether he thought Odessa should be listened to as a series of separate pieces, or as a single, fully composed sequence. His eyes sparkled when he gave me this answer: “It’s an uninterrupted journey. It’s a film. You could compare it to a dream where your conscience tells you something happened to you. Then something that has never happened to you. Then something that happened to someone else…”
He is right. Odessa has a particular abundance of life and liveliness, and deserves to be heard on its own terms.