How do you spell Piano Brilliance in Russian? V-L-A-D!
I met with Vlad Girshevich, where I learned about a guy who’s on a totally different plane from me and from most of his fellow musicians, too.
Born in Uzbekistan in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Vlad began playing piano by ear at age 4 on something he described as more like a toy than a real piano. Noticing his gift, his grandfather bought him a real piano quite early, where he continued to teach himself to play—with both hands–until age 7, when he was tested for admission to a highly prestigious music school in Uzbekistan. The test included the tester hitting a key on one piano and having Vlad select the same note on another piano. He did it every time. Hmmm. So the tester tried a pair of keys, which Vlad copied; then an entire chord. The recognition of his perfect pitch was one reason he was rapidly accepted to Uspensky Republic Special Music Academic Lyceum.
In this school, his classmates and competitors were only the most gifted piano students in the country. While Vlad praises everything he learned from what he describes as the most patient and encouraging of teachers, he did admit that much of what he was being taught sort of rolled off his back until years later, when he came to realize the gifts he got there. One of the techniques he was taught was to “install the apparatus.” For instance, a teacher could listen to him play without looking at him and call across the room, “relax your elbows.” They insisted on perfect hand position, perfectly relaxed elbows, shoulders, and back. He learned how unequal pressure on the fingers can affect the “color,” or the “culture of sound.”
In about 11the grade, he was walking down the corridor at school and heard another pianist playing music that stopped Vlad in his tracks. It was a George Gershwin song, and Vlad picked up on the difference in harmony and melody from what he knew. He stopped and listened to this other player. It seems that here is where a jazz musician was born. Next, a teacher picked up on Vlad’s newfound curiosity and gave him some Oscar Peterson records. Vlad was off and running, listening to Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and so many more. He would sit and listen again and again and chart the music so he could begin to understand jazz and play it.
Vlad came to love playing jazz for its collaboration because, in his school, everything was about competition. By the time he was involved in jazz for 6 months, he was playing in a big band. In 1992, David Kikoski visited Uzbekistan with Bob Berg’s group; and he could hear in Vlad the influences of Keith Jarrett. To help Vlad grow, Kikoski sat and played one tune, first in ragtime, then in Art Tatum’s stride style, then like Oscar Peterson, then Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett. Without knowing one word of English, Vlad understood that he was to listen to all styles and develop his own. From this point, Vlad studied these masters by listening, transcribing their music, and thereby gaining a deeper understanding of chords and harmony. In later years, he developed a method for teaching this in simple ways. He calls it Kung Fu Piano. More on this later.
In 1995, just when the USSR was breaking up, Vlad took advantage of an opportunity to immigrate to Colorado with support from an agency developed by a secondary relative who was here already. He had about 6 months of support, English language studies, etc., and then he stood on his own. He still misses what his home used to be for the rice pilaf, shish kebab, and bread in particular. The sharp little brimless cap he is usually seen in is from Uzbekistan.
He has had some incredible experiences living as an American. At Herb’s, he was invited to sit in on an organ, an instrument he had absolutely no experience with. Turns out Pat Bianchi’s gig there was to end when Pat was moving to New York, and Vlad was selected to replace him. Oh, my! Pat had one day to show Vlad how to turn the darned thing on, slide the pedals in place, and work the stops. He swears he stunk, but Herb’s owner, Laura Newman, assured him he was fine. It didn’t take long until he really was fine and then some. In fact, he played B3 organ as many as 5 nights a week at Herb’s for 7 years and hosted a jam session there on Tuesday nights. He’s still there on Mondays and Tuesdays.
We talked a lot about his jazz philosophy, and I was quite taken with this quote of Vlad’s: Music comes from a thoughtless place. Being able to play music and not have the mind interfere allows music to flow into this world from emptiness. To be able to tap into that emptiness, one should learn how to let go of controlling the music, stop attempting or forcing to create something. Letting go is a very important part of the evolution of consciousness. I can see when Vlad is in this happy place while he’s playing because his grin is infectious!
Vlad has several CDs, a number of which are solo piano. “Remembering Oneself” contains songs you know. On “Letting Go of the Chrysalis” (2012) he is creating the music as he goes, achieving that “emptiness” he described. It’s a gorgeous CD. “Cycle of Return” (2017) was with Rony Barrak and Vlad’s best friend, Alex Nekrasov. And in 2016, he and his son Aleks recorded a trio with the incomparable Eddie Gomez on bass. His son Aleks is an accomplished drummer who Vlad raised as a single dad.
Currently, he’s working on multiple projects, one of which is making music videos which he produces himself, from playing to sound, to lighting, etc. Go to youtube.com and search Vlad Girshevich for some amazing listening and watching. I particularly enjoyed “In Conversation with the Garden,” in which he includes animation he creates. More can be found under Alex Nekrasov’s channel.
Vlad’s biggest project is his “Kung Fu Piano,” much of which is online. His teaching concept makes the complicated, simple. On his site www.kungfupiano.com, you can see free video music lessons in which he introduces an easy way to think about learning jazz and playing music. Students at all levels benefit from his techniques for learning chords and harmony. Take a look. The site has a calendar that can be used to schedule private lessons with Vlad.
Vlad outdoors photo by Alex Nekrasov
Photos of Vlad playing keys are snippets taken from “I Hear a Rhapsody” – Vlad Girshevich and David Kikoski