Alperin, Misha

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Misha Alperin

Pianist, composer

Pianist Misha Alperin earned critical accolades for a series of albums that combined folk elements from his native Ukraine and classical influences infused with jazz sensibilities reminiscent of Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and Keith Jarrett. It was these last influences and his relationship with jazz label ECM that prompted critics to label his music as jazz, although his music is very much a hybrid of styles and genres.

Alperin was born on November 7, 1956, in Kamenetz-Podolsky, Ukraine, in the former USSR. He grew up in the rural area of Bessarabia, Moldavia, a region including the Carpathian Mountains that borders on Romania in Eastern Europe. His mother was a music instructor and his father was a journalist and writer. Alperin's musical identity emerged slowly. "As a child I remember that I never enjoyed music/piano lessons," he told an interviewer for Contemporary Musicians. "I guess I never had real inspiring teachers." In his early teenage years, Alperin discovered that he possessed talent as a pianist, but that he lacked musical direction: "At age 14, I started to play rock, heavy metal at dance parties. I didn't enjoy any serious music at the time, while I was very good technically. I even played concerts, [and] my first solo recital was at the age of 16." Alperin's aimlessness ended in the mid-1970s. He recalled: "When I was 19, I heard the second piano concerto of Rachmaninov and then something happened. I cried and in that moment I felt I became a musician."

Alperin became a member of the Moldavian Jazz Ensemble, led by saxophonist and violinist Semjon Shirman. The need for income prompted him to accept gigs at local celebrations. He recounted: "During my study as a classical pianist I started to play at Moldavian weddings every Saturday as a way to earn money and to survive. Surprisingly enough we had to play at these weddings not only folk music, but everything from the Beatles and Stevie Wonder to Abba and Elvis Presley." His musical knowledge began to expand exponentially as he integrated his classical and popular music studies with an exploration of regional folk traditions. "Already at that time I understood that Moldavian/Romanian folk music is an un-separated part of the eastern and oriental tradition as well as klezmer music," he told Contemporary Musicians. "Because of the very heavy and almost surrealistic movie-like circumstances at the weddings my relation with Moldavian folk music was not so close as it became later when I moved to Russia. Only then I started to appreciate Moldavian folk music." When asked what it was like to play at Moldavian weddings, Alperin responded: "To be a musician at the folk wedding meant 30 to 40 hours of playing outside in the cold open air, with just a few breaks, and two hours of sleep." He continued, "We had to play the repertoire of thousands of songs and dances on the spot, without any rehearsal…. For a classical musician, this is an enormous challenge, and sometimes it was very stressful. But it was an incredible school for playing with different musicians every time. It reminds me of the jazz experience in the old times in the USA, where most of the learning schools were in the jazz clubs."

While living and performing in Moldavia, Alperin's knowledge of jazz began to slowly develop. He was in his mid-20s when he first heard jazz innovators Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Alperin was so entranced by Parker and Coltrane that he began to transcribe their horn solos so that he could replicate them on the piano. After moving to Moscow in 1983, Alperin met future collaborator Arkady Shilkloper, who played French horn and flugelhorn with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and who famously provided the music for the Bolshoi Theatre and the Bolshoi Brass Quintet. The duo began adapting Moldavian folk music to the jazz idiom. "It was a big challenge to see if I could contribute to Misha's concept," Shilkloper stated in an ECM press release. Alperin and Shilkloper took their musical collaboration on the road in 1989, playing Oslo, Norway, where Alperin subsequently settled. They recorded their first effort, Wave of Sorrow, for Manfred Eicher's ECM label. The album elicited critical praise from Thomas Rotshschild in the Frankfurter Review, which the ECM press release quoted: "Alperin's compositions are impossible to classify in terms of genre. … They are unique indeed, and must be heard."

In his interview with Contemporary Musicians, Alperin related how he came to the attention of ECM records. "In 1986 I was part of a group of musicians in Moscow who reopened the jazz club Blue Bird. We played there every night for free…. One day a Norwegian journalist, Isak Rogde, visited our club and made amateur recordings of my music. That led to an invitation by the Vossa Jazz festival (Norway) in 1989. When we were there, we got the spontaneous idea to visit the legendary Rainbow Studio in Oslo, known for the ECM Recordings. Jan Erik Kongshaug, sound engineer of this studio, gave the small recording of our visit to Manfred Eicher of ECM. Our first ECM recording—Wave of Sorrow—became a fact and continued tours in Norway followed. In 1993 I got a contract with the Norwegian Academy of music in Oslo as a professor of piano improvisation and composition and then I moved here with my daughter Ksenia."

In his Contemporary Musicians interview, Alperin described the process of working with Eicher for ECM as one of creative collaboration: "It is an important learning process…. Most important is that he is a very good listener. For musicians who are creating and are often uncertain his feedback is a tremendous gift. You learn from him to focus more on details, moods, atmosphere and the character of your music. I am thankful to him because he is stretching my poetical abilities as a musician."

For the Record …

Born November 7, 1956; son of Efim Alperin (a journalist and writer; died in 1977) and Sarah Alperin (a music teacher); engaged to marry Annemarie de Haas, 2009; children: Ksenia Alperin, born c. 1990. Education: Moldova State Academy of Music, 1971-1976.

Member of Moldavian Jazz Ensemble; moved to Moscow, 1983; recorded Wave of Sorrow, 1989; began teaching at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, 1993; released Her First Dance, 2008.

Addresses: Record company—Tina Pelikan, ECM Records, phone: 212-333-1405, fax: 212-445-3509, email: [email protected].

After he moved to Oslo, Alperin accepted a position as a musical instructor of jazz piano and improvisation at the Norwegian State Academy of Music. "Since I moved to Norway in 1993 a lot has changed in me," he told Contemporary Musicians. "Norwegians and Norway have naturally inspired me. Sometimes I feel more a Nordic person than a south person. This has to do with my life here by the Oslo Fjord the last fifteen years where the silence and unpredictable weather, the space and the richness of the light inspire me to compose and to be more introverted and meditative." Alperin was also involved with several outside projects, including work with the Moscow Art Trio; Bulgarian Voices Angelite and Hun-Huur-Tu; the dual piano project Double Dream with Mikhail Rudy that combined classical music and improvisations; and Jon Christensen. In 2008 he released what All Music Guide critic Thom Jurek considered his best work to date, Her First Dance, which featured Shilkloper and cellist Anja Lechner. Jurek wrote: "Alperin is a very unique pianist whose juxtaposition of classical music, jazz, and free improvisation creates a seamless and poetic whole."

Selected discography

Wave of Sorrow, ECM, 1989.

North Story, ECM, 1998.

First Impression, ECM, 1999.

Misha Alperin: Piano, Boheme, 2000.

At Home, ECM, 2001.

Night, ECM, 2002.

Blue Fjord, Jaro, 2004.

Her First Dance, ECM, 2008.



All Music Guide, (May 14, 2008).

Additional material for this profile was obtained from a May 2008 interview with Misha Alperin and from the ECM press kit for Her First Dance.

—Bruce Walker