From the Cold

Dmitriy Klevenskiy is a pianist. He has been a bandleader, composer, arranger, programmer, engineer, teacher, and world traveler. But most important, he is an artist of the highest order. Born in the seaport city of Kaliningrad in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast (separated from mainland Russia when Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia gained their respective independence from the USSR), Klevenskiy's twenty years of formal education on the keys and his travels around the globe have helped form a craftsman who is equally approachable and erudite.

He is not a tall man, but imposes a certain kind of command through his large frame and musculature; he looks more like a thug in a Russian gangster film than a jazz pianist. His hands are large and at first glance clumsy, but on the keys their dexterity is buttery grace. Making his bones on the cruise-ship circuit, Klevenskiy has hit every major port of call and ended up with a lengthy tour of duty throughout Indonesia via a prestigious private performance in early 1999 for future president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

For all his looks and worldliness, Klevenskiy has a disarming smile and casual way of being that reveal a modest man who truly enjoys his moment in time: "Tygmont was good. Good crowd, good musicians to play with. But this is nice too. I like South Florida. Tonight was good."

Klub Tygmont is Poland's most prestigious jazz club. Though young in comparison to other stalwarts of the jazz world, it is widely considered one of the top 100 clubs on the planet. Klevenskiy will downplay anything, but keep in mind that his performances at Tygmont, attended by hundreds of people, were received with riotous acclaim, and he likens this feeling to a midweek gig at the Van Dyke Café in front of a dozen patrons. But his secret, aside from obvious skill and administrative prowess, lies in how he blinds himself from the world beyond the stage and settles into a zone of personal satisfaction where he balances playful mischief and an utmost respect and reverence for the craft.

That night in the Miami Beach club on the corner of Lincoln Road and Jefferson Avenue, where Klevenskiy is accompanied by drums and bass guitar, his joie de vivre is reflected by the great time he is having on the piano. He's a bugs-in-the-pants kind of guy who follows the fluctuations of the piece and allows the animation to overtake him; even standards evoke the same excitement as the romp and wail of a Herbie Hancock piece. "We were in the middle of nowhere, Russian winter all around, and I'm in this little cabin with a few other players and we are jamming and drinking and having a great time," Klevenskiy recalls. "We had a serious feel that night, everybody feeding off each other, and it got really hot." Describing this jam session while on a cigarette break, he's interrupted by a pair of South Beach goddesses walking along Lincoln Road. "Hot like that! There are so many beautiful women here! I like getting into jams like that; there's honesty there and no pretense."

Regardless of how deep in the zone he might get, Klevenskiy, though young, guides his partners through subtle changes using a doting gaze, a slight nod, a rangeless smile, a dip of the shoulders, whatever; he is a natural leader at ease with experienced performers and young first-timers. His choice of pieces and his personal compositions hit on every major high of jazz. From the slow and reflective to the out-of-control and sweaty, a set with Klevenskiy at the keys is a true reflection of jazz's undying quality: It is music for whomever chooses to listen; there is no high-glossed snobbery or elitism.

Potential listeners might shy away from jazz concerts because they think the music is inaccessible. Though incredible artistry and refinement characterize the genre, the true jazz musician plays because it is all he knows, and a good musician plays regardless of who's listening. Whether they're heads of state or a pair of teens in rock and roll T-shirts, Klevenskiy pours it out to them. This is a rarity in the ever-evolving world of music — a musician who respects the audience before the dollar. "I find peace behind the piano. I am happy playing and composing. I am a very lucky man to do what I love."

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Abel Folgar