By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Alex Nakhimovsky was a teen living in the Ural Mountains industrial city of Chelyabinsk when he heard the jazz recording that would change his life. After a childhood focused on violin lessons, he was studying piano and theory of music in the local music conservatory and obsessed with table tennis. In a rare gesture of détente, the Soviet state-owned “Melodiya” record label released an Ella Fitzgerald compilation.
The 13 songs transformed at least one life in the city whose name translates as “pothole” in the local Bashkir language.
“It was difficult to come across recordings of jazz, but things were warming up a little bit in terms of opening musical boundaries,” Nakhimovsky says. “The harmony of jazz and the beauty and interesting quality of chords are very appealing to musicians, especially to me as a theory major. And then of course, Ella Fitzgerald had a charm that you could hear even if you didn’t see her in person, an aura of warmth and friendliness.” A few of the selections featured saxophonist Benny Golson, whom Nakhimovsky would eventually meet and perform with in the U.S., Israel, and Russia.
Now a well-known jazz and classical musician throughout the world, Nakhimovsky, who now lives in West Hartford, will lead a quintet on Saturday, Dec. 5 at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel in Manchester.
Nakhimovsky’s parents met in the Urals, each ending up in the region as a result of World War II. His father, Simcha, had grown up in a Yiddish-speaking family in Latvia that was deported by the Soviets; his mother, Lina, left Ukraine with her family after surviving the 1941 siege by Axis forces.
With no operating synagogues in Chelyabinsk, Jewish life was a private affair, Nakhimovsky recalls. “My grandparents would go to friends’ homes for the High Holidays, and some Jews would get together to sing Yiddish songs. But for my parents, that was quite dangerous. They could lose their jobs if somebody found out.” Lina was the director of a molecular spectroscopy lab. Simcha was a professional musician and choir conductor who taught his sons Yiddish and Hebrew songs at home, accompanied by Alex on piano.
In 1977, Nakhimovsky left Chelyabinsk with his parents and younger brother; his older brother would follow a year-and-a-half later. “My mother was the initiator,” he recalls. “She felt that there was very little freedom of expression there.”
The family spent a year in Belarus before making their way to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society offices in Vienna. They considered joining Simcha’s brother in Israel, but the Middle Eastern climate would have been challenging to Simcha, who suffered from health issues.
The family opted for New York, where they arrived in 1978, and where 19-year-old Alex entered the Mannes School of Music. His mother landed a job teaching physics at Colgate University in 1979, but left a year later to teach at Trinity College in Hartford. The family relocated to Bloomfield, where Simcha served as a part-time cantor at Congregation Tikvoh Chadoshoh in Bloomfield and Congregation Kol Chaverim in Glastonbury, and at a synagogue in Pittsfield, Mass.
Nakhimovsky enrolled in the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, where he studied with jazz saxophonist Jackie McLean while working part-time at the Coach Light Dinner Theater. He graduated in 1985 with a double major in Jazz Studies and Theory of Music in 1985. After working as a musician on a cruise ship for a year, he earned a Master’s from Hartt in Piano Accompanying in 1988. That year, he was asked by fellow Russian Jews meeting at the JCC in West Hartford to perform music from the ‘old country.’ Nakhimovsky created the Hartford Klezmer Orchestra together with co-leader Vladimir Kocherginsky, a fellow Russian-Jewish émigré. The group was active for a decade.
Nakhimovsky still weaves klezmer strains into his repertoire, which spans continents and musical styles. In the late ‘80s, he was first invited to perform at the annual Baikal Waves International Jazz Festival in Irkutsk, Russia, which he began co-producing in 2006. As a classical pianist, he has graced stages throughout the country, including Carnegie Hall and Steinway Hall. Last year, he was awarded a grant to arrange a collection of Brazilian music for vocalist June Bisantz, in preparation for their third recording project together. Nakhimovsky has also performed with a long list of jazz notables. In the early ‘90s, Nakhimovsky performed and produced concerts with Golden Land Concerts & Connections, a New York-based Jewish music-booking agency. Among his fellow performers were noted clarinetist David Krakauer and Svetlana Portnyansky, a Moscow-born Jewish vocalist who served as a cantor in Los Angeles.
Nakhimovsky’s father, Simcha, died in 1993. His mother, Lina, remarried in 2010 and made aliyah three years ago with her husband to Modi’in, outside Jerusalem.
Now 85, she tutors science and English.
Since 1999, Nakhimovsky has been a full-time faculty member at the Greater Hartford Academy for the Arts and adjunct faculty member at the Hartt School. The West Hartford resident is also a regular in the Beth El Temple of West Hartford musical program lineup.
But the boy from the Urals is still alive and well. “I have a lot of friends in the [local] Russian Jewish community, and I occasionally perform for them,” Nakhimovsky says. “It gives me a chance to play Russian and Jewish songs. A lot of them, I learned as a teen. Now, as a professional musician, I can hear that music and it’s not too difficult to pick up.”
“A Musical Evening with Alex Nakhimovsky and Friends,” Saturday, Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m., Beth Sholom B’nai Israel, 400 Middle Turnpike East, Manchester. For tickets: www.myshul.org, (860) 643-9563.