Julius Vasylenko: Seeing Stars

Gordon Marshall By

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Julius Vasylenko has earthy charisma. Because of his accent, people who come into his purlieu immediately assume an association with elite British improvisers. "Did he hang with Derek Bailey?" they wonder...I could say Vasylenko, a multi-reed and saxophonist now based in Boston, was John Butcher's and Evan Parker's kid brother.

However, it feels a bit awkward, as he is like a big brother to me. A brusque, burly gent with curly hair, he has the air of the tough construction worker one could easily mistake him for— except for his precise, proper Limey enunciation—and indeed, he is very much the Limey, a survivor by wits that carried him across an ocean.

Born of an Italian mother and Ukrainian father, he still carries a smattering of the latter's language around with him, which he spoke as a child. "All it takes is the right key to open it up, and it floods out," he says. I ask him about the musical pun and, to be sure, it is not lost on him.

In fact, such a play on words is very much akin to the plays-on-notes he works out of his instruments; which include, in addition to the alto sax, a bamboo sax and a shower rod.

Vasylenko currently leads a number of projects, including Boston Lamb & Veal, with saxophonist Joshua Jefferson, and percussionist Andrew Eisenberg; and the duo Romulus and Remus, with Thomas Peri. Also, he participates in Dave Gross' pioneering all-free big band ensemble, Grizzler.

Equally at home in any of these contexts, and whether as a participant or leader, he goes beyond the call of duty, coming to the helm when a leader's work lapses or giving a leading role to others in his own ensembles. In the latter, he is mentor and tutor, shoring up and showing the way to those under his see.

His performances often begin with him as if he were at sea, without a clear direction, fragilely finding his way among his collaborators—but this is brief, and deceptive. Like a serpent—and his bamboo sax indeed resembles the medieval instrument of the same name—he feels out the styles of the other players and in no time is zooming into a zone of high energy harmonics, with the most human feel.

"That's the story of my life," he remarks, the story of a kid who rose from the hard streets of Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK. "Thatcher made me." Hard knocks brought him through the punk scene, a lingering glance afterward to the progressive and psychedelic dons of the '60s—through to the free jazz and post-jazz from which he now takes his cue.

His improvisations often climax with an almost song-like, peculiarly British crescendo, and when they end it is also in a peculiarly British way that he is about to reach even greater heights, but restrains himself out of seasoned propriety. This restraint is also poignant. It's as if there is more of a story he wants to tell, perhaps even of great grief but his Albion modesty cuts him off.

In all, one gets the sense when they get to know his music that it is very much autobiographical, and feeling that, one wants to know as much about the man's story as one can.

"I was born blind," he said. "What this did to me, who can tell ... from birth, born blind. I still have to cope with that, I will never have full vision. I have a memory: I'm in my crib; I'm conscious of these bars on my crib. I would have to have been about 18 months, about two—pre-language. Whether this is a false memory or not, it is still very clear in my mind. I remember consciousness, I remember I would look out every night and see stars (of course I didn't have a name for them). I remember this sort of here-I-am-again feeling, and 'what is this I'm looking at?' It was like the firmament, it was like constellations—but it could have been a stigmatism when you see particles moving around in your eyes.

"So, this I remember going on every night, thinking, 'Here I am again.' I obviously didn't say that but I felt that. It's like feeling things before you know. They were distinctly yellow, the stars, although of course I didn't call them that. And I guess I used to cry a lot, though I don't remember that. So I'm lying in this crib, and I remember I am in this room with my parents' bed next to mine; and I remember this sort of dark, nameless shape—my father—and I remember this sort of dark power and this energy: my father. I had probably kept them up all night, after work, factory work. And I remember him coming up to me shaking the crib! Not a violent guy, just tired, me crying, and this was the last straw...I remember the sounds, too, this sort of gutteral 'roar!'

"No music around the house, apart from my mother singing Italian folk songs as she went about cleaning. I don't remember my father singing, but I'm not sure. Maybe, maybe...No, there was no encouragement in that direction; probably the opposite. I was very coddled. My parents would say, 'he'll never be a doctor or a lawyer, but maybe a shopkeeper'!


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