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White Hot Russian 

Lev Polyakin is a mainstay in the Cleveland Orchestra. Now he's a promising jazzbo too.

Polyakin cut his teeth on jazz greats while developing into a - master violinist. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Polyakin cut his teeth on jazz greats while developing into a master violinist.
Lev Polyakin doesn't just play crossover; he lives it. A thoroughly schooled and extensively recorded musician, the violinist is assistant concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra. He's also a jazz player, recording on his own label. There's no conflict between the two wildly divergent styles, he says; peaceful coexistence is the rule. Why would it be otherwise for a man who grew up practicing classical music, falling in love with jazz, studying in Russia, and is now a confirmed U.S. resident?

Born into a musical family in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Polyakin studied at the Moscow Conservatory with renowned violin teacher Yuri Yankelevich and the even better known violin virtuoso Leonid Kogan. At 21, Polyakin was appointed co-concertmaster of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 and two years later joined the first violin section of the Cleveland Orchestra.

On the classical front, Polyakin has recorded and performed for Melodiya, Decca, and National Public Radio (not to mention the numerous recordings the Cleveland Orchestra has made for Telarc). As a jazz musician, he has cut a pair of discs -- the first, Russian Blues, is out of print; the second, 2002's The Other Side of the Road, released on his own Mira label, is a robust, romantic recording spanning a pretty take on Django Reinhardt's "Nuages," a lovely, dappled "Blues in G" featuring the fine Cleveland guitarist Bob Fraser, and a rip-roaring interpretation of Sonny Rollins's calypso. Polyakin marbles his improvisations with all kinds of classical quotes. Small wonder he leans heavily on the romantics, like Tchaikovsky and the obscure Belgian fiddle prodigy Eugene Ysaye.

A child of the Khrushchev-Brezhnev era, the 50-year-old came to music when he was a child, and began writing songs as a teenager while studying at the Conservatory. The round trip to school and back took three hours, and Polyakin spent the commute reading books and writing tunes.

"All families in Russia at that time would educate children with music, and parents would introduce their children to it when they were six or seven," Polyakin recalls. "My mother decided I would play violin. I preferred soccer, and I would practice violin probably one hour and play soccer outside for five hours."

When he was 13, Polyakin fell in love with Louis Armstrong. Records were hard to come by in Soviet Russia, and he played a reel-to-reel tape often enough to frazzle his parents' nerves.

"I played Louis Armstrong so much," the Cleveland Heights resident recalls with a laugh. "My favorite thing at that point was 'Hello, Dolly!' I played it 500,000 times. I was trying to be part of the Louis Armstrong cats."

Polyakin also revered Erroll Garner, Ella Fitzgerald, and great French violinist Stephane Grappelli. He often listens to recordings Grappelli made in the 1930s with the Hot Club of France, the legendary group led by gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, marveling at the eloquence the group packed into the three- to four-minute cuts it recorded on the then-primitive medium of tape.

For the past 10 years, Polyakin has recorded with friends such as Bob Fraser and the Mike Petrone Trio. Polyakin's wife, Martha Aarons, a flutist who works with him in the Orchestra, also works on his jazz recordings, which are surprisingly strong, considering Polyakin's day job.

"Most classical players are completely married to the page; it's an eye-hand thing," Petrone says. "If it's not there, they can't play. But Lev has the ability to actually improvise. He doesn't have to have a page in front of him, but he gets pretty nervous about it."

A shy man who performs with great zest, Polyakin is courteous to the extent that he asks permission from his wife, with whom he's currently recording, to discuss his new album. Its basis is the numerous Christmas concerts he has performed with the Cleveland Orchestra over the years.

"We didn't have Christmas in Russia when I was there," he says, noting that the holiday season was celebrated only by a New Year's tree. He's since become enamored of the Christmas spirit, and plans to call the album Christmas Kaleidoscope; it will feature Schubert's "Ave Maria," a string section from the orchestra helping on selections from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," and traditional favorites like "White Christmas." The recording is just getting under way at Suma Recording Studios in Painesville, with well-known engineer Paul Hamann.

In the meantime, Polyakin is dropping by Night Town this week for a couple of promising jazz sets. At times he sounds as if he's still feeling his way around jazz; he's certainly humble about his ability. "You know, these are professional jazz musicians," Polyakin says. "I'm grateful for these people to not tease me too much. They don't make too many jokes."

Nor are they ever likely to: Polyakin's jazz chops have developed to the extent that they impress even the most seasoned local players. If Polyakin is modest about his abilities, his fellow musicians are much less so.

"In jazz, you have to have the ability to interpret on your own, whereas if you're reading something, it's all on paper and you don't have to create the interpretation," Petrone says. "I encourage Lev to trust himself. He has what it takes."

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