Though he left the country more than 20 years ago, returning home to his native Ukraine is always a special occasion for pianist/composer Vadim Neselovskyi. His summer 2014 performance at the country's largest jazz festival, Alfa Jazz, took on an added poignancy, however, because of the political turmoil afflicting the nation. Having assembled a trio especially for the occasion, Neselovskyi forged a strong and meaningful bond with his bandmates - bassist Daniel Loomis and drummer Ronen Itzik - through this act of musical communion with his homeland.
That deeply emotional bond can be felt and heard throughout Get Up and Go, Neselovskyi's first trio recording. The album, released May 19, 2017 via Jazz Family and Neuklang Records, shows off the range of emotions this trio is able to summon, as well shining a spotlight on Neselovskyi's compositional gifts, allowing him to conjure a remarkable symphonic sweep from such limited instrumentation.
When Neselovskyi and his trio arrived at the Alfa Jazz festival that June day, they had planned an upbeat, playful set appropriate to an open-air summer festival. Only ten minutes before they were to take the stage, the promoter announced that a Ukrainian military plane had been shot down by separatists and that the entire country was in mourning. Neselovskyi sat down at the piano, faced not with a crowd of eager revelers but with a somber audience holding candles, tears streaming down their faces.
Changing the program on the fly, Neselovskyi opened the set with a solo performance of "Krai," a poignant piece that quotes from an Orthodox prayer, the raw feeling of which he replicates here. The trio followed with "Get Up and Go," the piece that became the new album's title track. Though the phrase connotes a feeling of energy and ambition in English, Neselovskyi was unaware of the idiom when he originally composed it (the song was originally recorded on Gary Burton's Next Generation album).
In the composer's mind, the phrase refers to a soldier, wounded on the battlefield and lying on the ground, who wills him or herself to rise and carry on. The tune's air of quiet but forceful resilience proved especially resonant in the circumstances in which the artists and audience alike found themselves that tense summer day. "The human soul is a complicated thing, and we'll probably never understand how it works, but I can say that I have a special connection to the place where I was born," Neselovskyi says. "Every time that I visit Ukraine or Russia, I think I'm subconsciously searching for this feeling of home that I had when I was growing up, but it cannot come back. That concert was a moment when I felt that I was together with my people, as strongly together as maybe only tragedy can bring people."
It was also a spontaneous shift in plans of which only a smaller ensemble would have been capable. Given his taste for employing an orchestral palette in his work, Neselovskyi had long resisted leading a trio. "I think of myself primarily as a composer, and I always felt like my music naturally required all these extra layers that a piano trio could not give," he explains. Having gleaned a wide-ranging grasp of orchestration from working in both orchestral writing and extensive solo performances in the wake of his solo album Music for September, Neselovskyi began to change his thinking, coming completely around upon discovering his significant chemistry with Loomis and Itzik. "Suddenly I started to see possibilities for how a trio could sound like an orchestra."
Not all of the music on Get Up and Go echoes the mournful mood of the Alfa Jazz performance. The album begins in the sort of playful mood that the trio originally had in mind that day, with the joyfully spiraling "On a Bicycle," inspired by 20th-century Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. "San Felio" evokes even sunnier climes, sparked by a vacation on the Mediterranean and capturing the image of sunlight reflecting on the sea as well as the sheer freedom and exuberance of getting away from it all.
The muted, hauntingly slow "Winter," highlighted by Loomis' wrenching arco bass, depicts the isolation and detachment embodied by the coldest months of the year, while the dreamy "Station Taiga," featuring ethereal wordless vocals by Portugese singer Sara Serpa, gives that mood a geographical location - the train station that marks the entryway to the "infinite forest," the seemingly endless, snow-covered forest that covers much of Siberia, Canada and Alaska.
"Who Is It?" picks up the pace again, with frenetic, buoyant rhythms inspired by the folk music of Moldova and the Balkans that Neseolvskyi heard as a child. "Prelude for Vibes" adapts the title track of Next Generation, written with Gary Burton in mind, into a piano trio version, while interludes featuring a Loomis solo and an atmospheric group improvisation both culminate in the album's moody closer, "Almost December," the delicate, first-snowfall stillness of which is hypnotically enhanced by another appearance by Serpa.
The youngest student to be accepted into the Odessa Conservatory (at age 15), Neslovskyi moved to Germany and finally to the US, where he completed his studies at Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute, where he was awarded a full scholarship as the pianist of an ensemble handpicked by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard. During this time, he toured internationally with Hancock, Chaka Khan, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Terri Lyne Carrington and shared the stage with artists such as John Scofield, Terence Blanchard, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Benny Golson, Nicholas Payton and Steve Coleman.
Neselovskyi's 2013 solo piano album Music for September was produced by Fred Hersch and received wide critical praise including a 4-star review in DownBeat. He has worked closely with another mentor, Gary Burton, for the past twelve years, both performing with and composing for the master vibraphonist. His next release will be a duo recording with French horn player Arkady Shilkloper celebrating five years of collaboration, and he has plans for an album of his orchestral compositions in the near future.