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Ukrainian-born pianist discusses his ode to Odesa and the impact of Russia's invasion


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Judy Woodruff: As the fighting in Ukraine continues, we take a musical journey to Odesa, Ukraine's historic port city on the Black Sea.

It is a personal vision of a Ukrainian-born pianist, but also a deeper look at the city's past and present amid war.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It begins at the historic railroad station, entryway to the city, and you can hear the trains.

Vadim Neselovskyi calls his new album "Odesa: A Musical Walk Through a Legendary City." It was written to honor his father, who was dying of cancer, and his home city.

Vadim Neselovskyi, Jazz Composer and Pianist: It's an effort to understand where I'm from. What are my roots? But it was just a starting point.

I think it evolved into something bigger than that, because then my literal journey through my hometown becomes an imaginary journey into the history, into collective consciousness, into the darkest side of Odesa's history.

Jeffrey Brown: Neselovskyi is a jazz pianist and composer who teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where we met recently.

It's also the place he first studied in the U.S. He was born and raised in Odesa into a Jewish family during the Soviet era, and at 15 was the youngest ever student to be to attend the prestigious Odesa Conservatory of Music.

Here, he evokes his walks to school as snow fell.

In Ukraine today, the sounds are different. Neselovskyi composed his piece before the Russian invasion began on February 24.

Narrator: This was Odesa, Soviet port on the Black Sea.

Jeffrey Brown: But Odesa has known war before, and one turbulent section portrays the horrors of World War II, when Romanian troops under Nazi guidance brutalized the city and its inhabitants, including the murder of thousands of Jews.

For Neselovskyi, who regularly performs in Ukraine and maintains close ties to friends and fellow musicians there, his music had a new resonance.

Vadim Neselovskyi: February 24 changed my life, and I think it changed my life forever. It's just really before and after, for obvious reasons.

And then I had to ask myself, is this music still relevant? And I realized, yes, it is, because there is enough drama in that story that I created. My drama was based on the Second World War, memories of Odesa. And now we have very often the same images that we saw from the Second World War, but now we see them in the color photography and videography.

Jeffrey Brown: So, when you are playing them now, you are feeling and seeing something different than you did when you first wrote them?

Vadim Neselovskyi: Absolutely.

Thank God I am a jazz musician. I get to improvise. And I cannot play without imagining those things myself. If I don't feel those things, you won't be feeling them.

Jeffrey Brown: Neselovskyi is a rare mix of classically trained pianist and brilliant jazz improviser, a musical omnivore for whom different sounds have always flowed together.

Vadim Neselovskyi: It was always one thing. It was this ocean of creativity in sound, and it could come from Keith Jarrett. It could come from Johann Sebastian Bach. It could come from Paul McCartney or Joni Mitchell.

Jeffrey Brown: I mean, it's — I hear all of them in your music, right? You want me to hear them?

Vadim Neselovskyi: I want you to hear them, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: The final section of this ode to Odesa speaks to the flowering that had been taking place in recent years, within an independent and democratic Ukraine. Now it too holds new meaning.

Vadim Neselovskyi: And I saw it as a sign of renaissance, as a sign of hope for my city.

But, of course, after February 24, after this horrible war has started, I also play this music as a prayer for peace and for my home country, for Ukraine.

Jeffrey Brown: From benefit concerts and sales of his new album, "Odesa: A Musical Walk Through a Legendary City," Vadim Neselovskyi has have to date raised some $200,000 for humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Jeffrey Brown at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Judy Woodruff: What an inspiration, as that country needs it.

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