A Jamming Jazz Pianist from Odessa

ONE of the more handsome pieces of writing I've read is a simple seven-page account by the Russian writer Konstantin Paustovsky of his meeting with fellow author Yuri Olesha in Odessa at the beginning of World War II. Dead tired, straight from the front, Paustovsky walked along a deserted Pushkin Street at dawn - the city's "old layer of atmosphere, mild, warm," replaced by a "harsh and empty air." He found his friend in the deserted Hotel London, Olesha refusing to evacuate - as everyone else had - the city in which he'd grown up and lived when it "whirled for days on end like a merry-go-round, everything galloping before your eyes: ships, thieves, fast talkers, women."

I arrived in Odessa last June, this the seventh city on an independent "jazz tour" of the Soviet Union which, so far, had taken my wife and me through two festivals and many minutes of taped interviews with musicians who had proved to be amazing - because of their dedication to an art which has not always enjoyed official sanction. My next encounter: 37-year-old pianist Yuri Kuznetsov.

I'd run into him on the streets of Riga, in Latvia, where he was performing at the Starptautiskais jazz festival. He was short, handsome, cordial, alert, serious, and a shade impish. He immediately put me in mind of qualities Paustovsky had attributed to his friend Olesha: his eyes "ready to blaze instantly with the flame of fancy and inspiration seized on the spur of the moment."

That evening in Riga, Kuznetsov performed with Estonian singer Sergei Manukian, and the music also fit Paustovsky's description: beginning, as so much "new music" of the Soviet Union does, with diminutive sounds, a sort of plaintive birthing, Yuri playing wood flute, then switching to piano. The piece lasted for 45 minutes, straight shot. Polystylistic as much jazz in the Soviet Union is, and rich in dynamics (a quality most American jazz lacks), it incorporated everything from "classical" trills to jaz z scat: rapturous falsetto, broken chords, quick runs, tonal colors, chants that seemed lifted straight from the Orthodox service (with a touch of synthesized E. Power Biggs), an upbeat sort of universal blue grass, a smattering of Kurt Weill, and a jolting sailor's hornpipe.

The crowd loved it. Young girls came out and handed the duo long-stemmed roses. Kuznetsov and Manukian exchanged sweat-soaked T-shirts as a symbol that they were one. Yuri and I agreed to meet again in Odessa.

On my first day there I went looking for evidence of that other Yuri, Olesha, who seemed to be the reigning "spirit" of the city, though he was no longer alive. Turning a corner, I caught sight of the stately opera house and acacia tree Olesha had led his friend Paustovsky to on their wartime walk. I even worked up nerve to ask the dignified, elderly porter outside the Krasnaya Hotel if he knew of the Hotel London. He immediately pointed toward the building that Isaac Babel, another author from Odessa, called "that refuge of all sufferers."

YURI KUZNETSOV and I met, not there (it's no longer a hotel), but in the lobby of the Chernoye More Hotel. Convivial, he was ready for a full day and probably night (for he seemed disappointed when I told him my wife and I had tickets for the opera that evening). We were introduced to his friend Vasya, an architect, and whisked away in Vasya's car, down "French Boulevard," past once stately homes of the bourgeoisie, past the Communist Party headquarters. Mock machine gun fire issued from the car, laught er, and a declaration that, in Odessa, people didn't really care much for politics, that they had more important things on their minds.

"Such as?" I asked.

"Life."

"Bureaucrats hate jazz," Yuri added.

"Still?" I asked.

"Well, it's better now, but...."

We stopped at an area on the sea south of the city. Yuri gulped giant quantities of fresh air, smacking his lips with considerable relish. Surrounded by what my wife described as "chunky little teenagers in bikinis," Vasya, who originally hails from the more temperate Baltics, kept saying, "Exotica, exotica. New freedoms. Perestroika."

Isaac Babel once wrote of singers - not pianists - from Odessa, saying they had "joy, artistically expressed joy in their being, high spirits, lightness of touch, and a charming, sad, and touching feeling for a life which is both good and bad, but extraordinarily 201> interesting." Again, for the second time, I sensed that the writer might have been talking about Yuri Kuznetsov.

At Vasya's home, before sitting down to a sumptuous Ukrainian meal (deep red borsch, strawberries, vareniki - dumplings with potato stuffing), Yuri and I went upstairs, where his friend had a sunlit studio overlooking a garden full of peonies. We sat down to some serious talk about his music.

He preaches what he practices: His cardinal tenet is a belief in ekspromt, or creation on the spot, an open field of improvisation, calling on a host of musical sources but not consciously using any single one. This rules out the deliberate use of folk, or "national," material employed by other musicians I'd talked to in the Soviet Union. Kuznetsov feels the goal is to infuse folk music with one's own soul, producing what he calls "global jazz." He feels he does this by "speaking directly and sincerely to the audience." Instruments are not important ("they play themselves"), nor is technique which, always with him, exists only to assist in "opening his soul."

Most musicians in the Soviet Union complained to me about the difficulty of finding "partners," other musicians who can play on their level, who speak the same musical language. In Manukian, Yuru Kuznetsov seems to have found a solution to this problem: "We meet every day. We watch football matches together, talk, joke. Mutual timing, understanding, trust. One heart, one life." What he hungers for, as do so many Soviet artists, is the chance to play with those jazz greats he has "only heard on record, b ut not as living contacts." Kuznetsov's isolation is heightened by "domicile registration," one of those peculiar Soviet institutions that does not allow people to move freely from city to city, town to town. His one request is the most basic an artist of any sort can make: He wants to bring his talent to the larger world while he's still alive.

After our talk and dinner, Yuri grew more and more expansive, our evening opera left waiting in the wings. We did make it, following a perilous ride back across Odessa. We quickly parked and skipped up the street toward the opera house. Yuri pointed out the apartment in which he was born and where his mother still lives. He and I broke out, spontaneously, into a scat on "Muskrat Ramble," drawing a look of concern from Vasya, as if we'd lost our minds.

When author Yuri Olesha's friend Paustovsky, on their wartime walk, suggested that Odessa had changed, lost its traditional liveliness, Olesha responded, "Ba-lo-ney! Odessans don't surrender and don't die. Their wit is crossed with fearlessness 201> even now, during the war, Odessans are just as brave, cheerful, and funny as ever." And even now, no matter what severe, changes the Soviet Union may be going through, the city's spirit seems to live on in someone like pianist Yuri Kuznetsov.

We stopped on the opera house steps.

"Now we must be serious," I said.

"Yes," he said. "Here you are at La Scala."

I tried to explain that I had deep rich feelings but too few words, in Russian, with which to express them. He said he felt the same, but was "very bad" at English. We understood each other perfectly, and parted.

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