Dvoskin, 71, is an elfish man with an intense mien, especially during his frequent acoustic bass solos, when the sounds spill off his fingers and roll through the air, one complex harmonic passage after another. The performances take place in the hotel’s lounge, an intimate and comfortable room that, for better or worse, serves as a way station between the lobby and the restaurant.
“My idea is we’re not just wallpaper here,” says Dvoskin, a classically trained bassist with a degree from Moscow’s venerable Gnessin Russian Academy of Music. “The musicians I play with, they’re improvising, they really create every time they play their music. Not every gig has musicians where it’s possible.”
The acoustic bass is an ungainly instrument, large and bulky, and almost always taller than the man or woman who plays it. It’s the undercarriage of a jazz tune, propelling it forward rhythmically while creating a sort of frame around the music at the same time. The beauty of the Tabard’s duo setting is that the bass becomes an equal player, with a far more complex interplay between instruments than one usually finds at a hotel gig.
“It’s not your typical ‘I’ll walk the baseline for you while you solo.’ It’s more constant communication,” notes Geoffrey Reecer, a member of the Air Force’s Airmen of Note, and one of three regular guitarists who play with Dvoskin. Adds pianist and occasional guest Harry Appelman, “His intonation, his soloing, the way he gets around the instrument — there’s a certain classical technique there.”
Twenty-two years and counting at the same spot in D.C.’s mercurial nightlife scene — still with no cover charge or minimum — is not an insignificant achievement, a throwback to an era when live jazz could be heard almost every night at most major hotels.
“There was a plethora of places, both big and small in D.C., and everywhere there used to be music: the Mayflower, the Willard, the bigger chains like the Ritz or the Sheraton and the Four Seasons,” says guitarist Donato Soviero, another Dvoskin regular. “But the day 9/11 hit, almost everywhere, the music was put on hold. And it never really picked up again,” he adds, noting that the digital music revolution also kicked in around that time, and hotels realized they could program their own musical choices for next to nothing in costs.”
Dvoskin’s Sunday night concert at the Tabard usually attracts at least a handful of regular listeners, people who drop in to hear him and his guest play some of jazz’s more challenging tunes: pieces by Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Jim Hall, Kenny Wheeler and Clifford Brown, for example. But there’s also a good chance there will be some in the audience who will treat the music as nothing more than background noise. Yet, says Dvoskin, who talks very little during the 2½ hour show, “when the music goes from heart to heart, even people who don’t have sharp ears or musical training, sooner or later they stop talking and realize something is going on here.”
Dvoskin went on the road as a professional bassist starting in 1966, when he was 18, crisscrossing the Soviet Union several times and playing in all its 15 republics. Even though the Cold War was in full swing, jazz was no longer considered a bourgeois decadence but an art form, and the music was performed almost exclusively in concert halls. As one of the top jazz bassists in the former Soviet Union, Dvoskin spent 10 years with the Soviet jazz band Allegro, whose performances can be seen on YouTube.
At the time, there was little jazz available on the Soviet Union’s official record label, Melodiya; Dvoskin and others heard their jazz on Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour on the Voice of America and through any other sources they could find.
“I had a friend whose father worked in the Trade Ministry, and he’d bring back a couple of Monk records when he traveled,” says Dvoskin, referring to the jazz innovator and pianist Thelonious Monk. Another friend, whose mother worked for the Italian Communist Party, lived in Moscow but traveled frequently to Italy and had a “huge collection of Duke Ellington and Barbra Streisand,” Dvoskin recalls, laughing at the memory.
In 1988, Dvoskin and three other Soviet musicians arrived in Washington as part of a local effort to form a sister-city relationship with Moscow. Instrumental in that drive was Fritzi Cohen, the co-owner, along with her husband Edward, of the Tabard Inn. Fritzi Cohen shepherded Dvoskin around town for several days and kept in touch. In 1997, she offered Dvoskin a job. Now the matriarch of the Tabard Inn, as she calls herself, she still comes in to see Dvoskin perform when she’s in town.
“Victor, what about my favorite song,” she called out during a recent Sunday evening, and Dvoskin, playing his solo with a bow rather than pizzicato, and Reecer, the guitarist, work their way through “Over the Rainbow.”
“At first they thought it was very pedestrian,” Cohen says to a visitor about the tune. “But everyone loves it.”
Sundays from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the Tabard Inn, 1739 N St. NW. tabardinn.com. Free.
Dvoskin will be joined by chromatic harmonica player Hendrik Meurkens on Oct. 20.