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Article "BREEDING NEW SPECIES OF MUSIC" by David Locklear
for GoTriad, Greensboro magazine, published on March 8, 2007
Classically trained composer Yelena Eckemoff says that classic rock bands such as Queen, Deep Purple and especially Pink Floyd(!), have been tremendous influences on her and her music since she was a teenager. Not exactly the traditional muses one expects a classically trained pianist to cite as inspirations.
But Eckemoff isn't as concerned with musical tradition as she is with actively capturing various creatures of sound, fusing them together and giving life to another breed of musical species.
Her education and background embraced a "vast variety of (musical) styles and methods of expression.
I learned to understand and appreciate them all," Eckemoff says with an orchestral Russian accent.
Some of the other musical styles she has absorbed include jazz, be-bop, funk and jazz-rock. However, her artistic heart belongs to the piano.
"My mother … was a great piano teacher. I heard her playing the piano and giving lessons since the day I was conceived. At 2 years of age, I was getting behind the piano and pretended I was playing Beethoven, Mozart or Tchaikovsky, announcing the names of their pieces to the 'public,'" she says.
Growing up in Moscow, then moving to the United States in 1991, she continued to sculpt her craft and bathe herself in different musical styles. Earning a master's degree in piano performance and pedagogy from Moscow State Conservatory, Eckemoff began concentrating her energies on composing her own music.
"Growing older, I became more interested in performing my own music. I always loved to perform … but my overwhelming drive to compose music had always interfered with my performing career."
As Eckemoff created her music, she found that using studio technology to replicate the instruments she needed to form her compositions lacked the warmth of working with fellow composers. This led her to ask a friend, Greensboro cello player Gayle Masarie, to add her creative touch to Eckemoff's canvas, and The Yelena Eckemoff Ensemble was born. The Ensemble consists of Eckemoff, Masarie, flutist Deborah Egekvist, bassist Nathan Scott and percussionist Michael Bolejack. The Ensemble recorded and released its first CD in 2006, "The Call," an album that houses Eckemoff's distinct but seamless fusion of the free spirit of jazz and the bombast of a symphony. The Ensemble will be performing several tracks from this album, plus some of Eckemoff's earlier solo material, Tuesday at UNCG.
Eckemoff hopes that attendees of the Ensemble's performance will be awash not only in "The Call's" cornucopia of sound, but also, she says, "I hope that they will like it and feel emotionally recharged and inspired. I hope that my music (sounds) fresh, exciting and meaningful to them and will help them dream, remember and contemplate."
Contact David Locklear at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Review "MAGICAL!" by Jan Dennis for Amazon.com
Yelena Eckemoff has done something almost entirely new--she's created what could very well be considered a new musical genre--classical world improv, if a name must be put to it. Drawing mainly, perhaps, on classical music, she's figured out a way to seamlessly incorporate world, jazz, and chamber ensemble elements.
The result? Music of uncommon beauty and pathos.
With an extensive, one might almost say comprehensive, classical piano foundation, Eckemoff and her altogether sympathetic band have produced one of the great, original discs of the new millennium. One of the things I love most about this disc is that the leader, though a classically trained pianist of the absolutely highest accomplishment, exhibits none of that uptightness that often plagues classical artists who assay other genres: indeed, Eckemoff effortlessly gambols and frolics in world-chamber jazz precincts as if she invented and absolutely owns this rarified music.
Her band (Deborah Egekvist, flute, bass flute; Gayle Masarie, cello; and Michael Bolejack, drums), players of uncommon empathy with chops to burn, lock into the highflying vibe with nary a misstep, deftly following the leader through the most arcane and heartfelt moves. Michael Bolejack, whose resume reads like a whose who of pop/soul/jazz/new grass greats, cites Peter Erskine, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, and Jon Christensen as his favorite drummers: one can hardly imagine greater lights as percussionists, and he absolutely lives up to those impossibly high standards. Flautist Deborah Egekvist plies a Grieg/Faure sensibility to great effect; there's huge depth and mystery in her playing. With absolutely spot-on intonation and a rich, dark tone, she consistently nails this technically challenging but emotionally charged music. Cellist Gayle Masarie channels the best of Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, consistently framing the bottom of this music with statements of great depth and felicity.
But it's the leader who makes the strongest impression: the overall concept, flawlessly executed by all involved, all tunes, and the majority of solo statements are hers. That she manages to compose, lead, and improvise with such absolute assurance and aplomb marks her as a consummate musician. Moreover, she has a unique approach to the piano, at once delicate, precise, and powerful, eliciting from the instrument passion, nuance, and strength as called for.
Standout tunes include the beguiling Japanese flavored "Sushi Dinner," the probing "Questions," and the provocative "Temptation." I'm also very taken by the title track, "The Call," filled with mystery and longing amid some absolutely stunning interaction among flute, piano, and cello (with both striking pizzicato and arco playing), "Daisy," "Garden in May," and "Sunny Day in the Woods" with their French Impressionist feel (and English, too--Delius comes to mind), the virtuoso piece, "Windy Day in the Countryside," with its evocative percussive stylings, and perhaps my two personal favorites, "Full Moon," its lushness calling to mind warm September evenings with a huge yellow harvest moon suspended just above the Eastern horizon, and "Imaginary Lake," almost eight minutes of pure musical magic. But there's not really any weak tunes in the bunch. Whether balladic or up-tempo numbers, everything resonates with our deepest feelings and longings.
Absolutely not to be missed by anyone who wants gorgeous, brilliantly inspired music of the highest accomplishment.
Review by Kathy Parsons for Solo Piano Publications
Piano Chronicles 1
"Piano Chronicles" is a musical autobiography from Russian-born and Moscow Conservatory-trained pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff. Album 1 contains music Ms Eckemoff composed in her later teens and early twenties. The earlier work is steeped in modern classical tradition, and is mostly abstract and edgy. This group of fifteen relatively short pieces is subtitled "Feelings," and reflects different states of the teenage mind such as "Purity," "Anxiety," "Love," "Doubts," and "Joy." Most of the music is rather dark and reflective, but always interesting The last track in the suite, "Destiny," has a rock influence that's fun. Eckemoff wrote the music on paper as she composed it, and then recorded the music for both volumes in her home studio in 2003. All of the music in this suite is solo piano.
The second suite of pieces, subtitled "Sketches of My Youth," is much more jazz-influenced, and the last four of the thirteen pieces include added instrumentation from a MIDI keyboard. This music also tends to be edgy, and it's fascinating to hear how Eckemoff mixed her classical training with jazz studies as her own musical voice evolved. "The Man Who Is Not Here" is dark and very emotional. Little blues riffs sneak in here and there. I really like "Watching a Night Sky," which has a bigger sound and an infectious rhythm. "Nothing Is Over For Those Who Hope" is more optimistic and lighthearted, almost playful. "In a Jazz Studio" is also a fun piece, and Eckemoff's fingers really dance all over the piano. One of my favorites is "Passions Over Mistrust," with its deep bass rhythm in the beginning and ending sections, and the lighter more questioning middle part. "Persistence" adds sax and percussion and then flute. Dark and kind of mysterious, this is a very interesting piece. "Presentiment of Love" is slow and silky, and could be the soundtrack to a "film noir." My favorite piece in the collection is at the very end. Titled "Leaving Everything Behind," it starts out quietly with a very simple right hand melody that is questioning and reflective. The left hand comes in with a gentle counterpoint that builds in intensity. Then an infectious bass line comes in, leading to a beautiful, mournful melody on keyboard with piano in the background. Piano comes forward, with percussion and sax. The instrumentation keeps changing, seamlessly evolving the painfully sad melody. This piece is a real knockout.
"Piano Chronicles, Album 1" is an amazing musical journey in one woman's life. If you are looking for melodic mainstream piano music, this one probably won't do it for you, but if you enjoy modern classical music and harder-edge jazz, give it a try.
Piano Chronicles 2
"Piano Chronicles, Album 2" is a continuation of Russian-born and Moscow Conservatory-trained pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff's musical autobiography. This album contains two suites of music composed in her late twenties and late thirties. Experimental and edgy, Eckemoff's deep roots in modern classical music is very apparent. The group of seven "Poetic Songs" are pieces that were composed around the work of several different poets. For this recording, the vocal parts were replaced by musical instruments (keyboard), but the music was performed with Russian singers in the late 1980's. The piano is still very prominent, but is only part of the musical texture. The music in this group tends to be very dark and reflective, and is more than a little bit challenging. "Fairyland" is lighter in mood, but this is a mysterious place where danger lurks. "Baba-Yaga" is a popular fairy tale about an old and ugly witch. This bouncy little piece is my favorite of this suite.
The second suite is subtitled "Old, New Impressions." Seven of the eleven pieces are solo piano. "Pictures of The Past" is one of Eckemoff's most melodic pieces so far. The intimacy of just the piano and pianist makes this piece very touching, as it depicts the highs and lows of life. "My Pastel Drawings" is more delicate and spare, and is also very lovely. As its title implies, "Bitter & Sweet" blends a mix of emotions, and does so very effectively - a favorite. "Reading By the River" depicts the flow and sparkle of a river with one hand, and the peacefulness of being lost in a book with the other - a fascinating study! "The Clouds of Blue" is lightly enhanced with other instrumentation, and is a gentle, soothing bit of musical tranquility - float away! "Iced Rain" is a solo piece that sparkles and chills at the same time. Fast and crisp (mostly without pedal), you can almost feel the sting of the ice on your face. "Dec. 31, 1972" is a graceful waltz in a classical style with variations on the theme. "Folk Waltz" is a melancholy, Russian-sounding piano solo in the first half that becomes (MIDI) orchestrated for the second half. "Russian Fantasy" is based on one of the most popular Russian folk songs, "White Birch." This jazz-rock arrangement is catchy, creative, and a great way to end the album. I hear that "Piano Chronicles, Album 3" is in the works, so stay tuned!
In listening to several of Yelena Eckemoff's CDs recently, I find that I personally like her more recent work best, but it's so interesting to hear how she has evolved as a composer over the course of a few decades. Her piano technique is phenomenal and all of her work is sincere and heartfelt. If you prefer someone like Jim Brickman, this won't be your cup of tea, but if you enjoy exploring the work of someone with a unique musical vision, I think you'll really enjoy this journey.
Kaleidoscope of Life
"Kaleidoscope of Life" began as a series of "musical toys," which were vignettes pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff improvised to relax from her more "serious" work. As the collection of "toys" grew, she realized that she was creating kind of a diary of her family life. Over time, she also collected sound effects from family videos as well as photos that reflected what the music was about, intending to keep it as a personal memento for her family. She later realized that the music was something that most people could relate to, either with their own families or their early lives, and released the collection on her own label. Born, raised, and educated in Moscow, Eckemoff earned a Masters Degree from the Moscow Conservatory. She and her husband came to the US in 1991, leaving their three small sons with their grandmother while they established a life here. The family was reunited fourteen months later, and "Happy Moments" captures the joyful reunion. Along with the piano, Eckemoff added other instrumentation, so this is not one of her solo piano recordings. As in life, the textures and colors keep changing, making this a very interesting and enjoyable album as well as a personal memoir. Some of the talking on the album is Russian, since the children spoke Russian at the time. Ms. Eckemoff is very open about translating, but it would be fun if the translations were in the liner notes or on her website, allowing those of us who don't understand Russian to know what is happening. The giggles and laughter are universal! The music has strong classical roots, but jazz and contemporary influences are apparent. The CD cover calls it "entertaining music," and I think that's very accurate.
The CD opens with one of the boys asking in Russian, "Is there going to be music?" His mom asks "What music?" Anthony then says, "But mu-usic! ... I am just going to stay right here." The music begins with "Morning Hopes," a very beautiful Russian-sounding waltz. "A Lazy Hour" is a very light, relaxed bit of musical bliss. "Halloween" has the sounds of thunder, goblins, and other spooky stuff but maintains a sense of fun and mystery in the music. "Play Time" is completely carefree with childlike innocence. "Kaleidoscope" is a bit more abstract, dancing and swirling with a colorful energy. "In a Blue Mood" slows down the pace and creates a quiet, reflective feeling with twinges of melancholy. My favorite track is the aforementioned "Happy Moments," which is in a ragtime style. Rhythmic and euphoric, this is joy set to music. "Grandma Olga's Waltz" is downright funny. Beginning with what sounds like a piano lesson that segues into a sweet little waltz, the sound of light snoring in the background cracks me up. "Christmas Tree" includes the sound of someone practicing "Jingle Bells" on cello. The actual piece is a lovely waltz that sparkles and enchants. "Do It My Way" is another favorite - graceful and a bit more serious, it could be a musical depiction of a parent patiently explaining something to a child. "Late Hour" concludes the album with more of a dark smooth jazz piece that's just this side of slinky.
"Kaleidoscope" is a unique and enjoyable musical experience. It is one woman's expression of family life that is both deeply personal and universal - and also a lot of fun.
When Christmas is Near...
"Christmas Is Near...." is a fascinating solo piano collection of individual Christmas pieces and medleys. Counting "The Nutcracker Suite" as one piece, there is a total of twenty-seven pieces on this album, most of which are spiritual rather than Santa songs. Very classically inspired, Yelena Eckemoff's arrangements include jazz touches and a very Russian musical spirit (she was born and trained in Russia). A pianist/composer with incredible playing skills, she shows her sensitivity as well as her bravura technique on this CD more than on some of her other recordings. The album was recorded live, with several takes of each piece to choose from for the final album, giving the music a very open, spontaneous feeling even through Eckemoff doesn't improvise much in the studio. I really like this collection because many of the arrangements are quite unusual, and the combinations of songs in the medleys are often inventive. I also like that she has included quite a few less commonly-heard songs. I wish the liner notes were more extensive, explaining the origins of some of these songs, but that's the teacher in me, I think, and it's a very minor point.
The CD opens with a beautiful and expressive arrangement of "There's a Song in the Air," where Eckemoff uses different variations on the theme, some in a classical style and some more contemporary. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is bluesy and very dark - an unusual treatment that makes it sound much newer than its 12th century roots, even as it evolves into a more classical mode. This is one of my favorite Christmas songs, and I really like this arrangement. The medley of "The Holly and the Ivy/We Three Kings/Coventry Carol" combines jazz and classical elements, with the three songs weaving in and out of each other - very colorful and unique. "O LIttle Town of Bethlehem/Away in a Manger/Infant Holy, Infant Lowly" is much quieter and more reflective. I also really like "Patapan/ God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," both minor key pieces that are lively and fun in this arrangement. "Here We Come A-Wassailing/Masters In This Hall" pairs two pieces you don't often hear and gives them a lovely, dreamy quality. Eckemoff takes the melody in "The First Noel" to places you might not expect, yet keeps the song from straying too far. She does something similar with "Silent Night," but jazzes it a little, keeping the mood peaceful and serene. The most unusual medley is "Jingle Bells/ It Came Upon the Midnight Clear/ I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day/ O Holy Night." Featuring some incredibly nimble finger work as well as gentle and heartfelt playing of a more introspective type, this is a tour de force! I was also delighted with her playing of the full "Nutcracker Suite." Tchaikovsky composed this work on piano before orchestrating it, but you rarely heard it played as a piano solo - love it!
Yelena Eckemoff is an amazing pianist/composer who offers the music world something different from the norm. She combines her classical background with more contemporary elements, producing an art form that is both serious and accessible, but is far from being ear candy. If you prefer Christmas music that is different and substantial, give this one a try!
Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ
"Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ" is an instrumental portrayal of the crucifixion that includes a reading of the passages from the book of Matthew that Yelena Eckemoff depicted in her music. Contemporary, with strong roots in classical music, this album is a deeply personal interpretation of the Biblical account of Jesus' last days, death, and resurrection. Ms. Eckemoff sought to convey the emotional and physical experiences of Jesus and those who were the closest to him, so much of the music is very dark and painful. Eckemoff combines acoustic piano with keyboards and synthesizers, creating an interesting and unusual effect. She did all of the performances herself, and the album has a very big, symphonic sound. The last fifteen minutes of the recording is a reading of Matthew 27-28 by Larry Van Horn, which seems a little long for a recording intended to be listened to repeatedly. Personally, I think the narration would be more effective right before the pieces the readings correspond with. This is what Eckemoff did with her earlier "The Birth of Emmanuel," so I'm not sure why she changed the format. The musical styles range from contemporary classical to jazz and even has some rock influence. The variety makes the album play like a soundtrack, which, basically, it is, and the complexity of the compositions creates an intellectual as well as an emotional challenge for the listener. This is a very serious piece of art, and would not work well as dinner or massage music. Since the album was conceived as a whole, discussing its individual pieces doesn't really seem appropriate for a review. Overall, the music is masterful and almost overwhelmingly emotional. With her extensive training at the Moscow Conservatory, Yelena Eckemoff brings a strong and unique voice to the world of contemporary instrumental music.
"The Call" is Yelena Eckemoff's second CD release this year and her first recording of original music for acoustic piano ensemble. Eckemoff's twelfth album is perhaps her most mature and fully-realized music to date. The quartet of musicians is comprised of Eckemoff on piano, Gayle Masarie on cello, Deborah Egekvist on flute and bass flute, and Michael Bolejack on drums. All four musicians have extensive and impressive credentials and play extraordinarily well together. Eckemoff was trained at the Moscow Conservatory and has a very rich background in classical music, jazz, experimental jazz-rock, and composition for various instruments and voice. All of those influences can be found in this music, making it very difficult to classify - a good thing! While not necessarily for the casual listener, Eckemoff's music is complex enough to satisfy the seasoned classical music lover and accessible enough for those dabbling in art-music. Several of the eighteen pieces are more jazz-oriented than classical, so it's a fascinating work.
The music for "The Call" was composed over a one-year period and varies widely in style and approach. Always full of emotion, some of the pieces are dark and mournful while others are joyful and full of energy. My favorite track is the title track, which opens the CD. Effectively conveying a real mix of emotions, this piece is mysterious, triumphant, dreamy, rhythmic, energetic, peaceful, and gorgeous. It swirls and dances, sparkles and glides, marches ahead and reflects back. It's amazing that one piece of music can say so many things in 4 1/2 minutes without seeming fragmented or disorganized. Brilliant! "Daisy" is a beautiful and deeply-felt piece composed when Eckemoff's beloved dog died unexpectedly. Full of love, sorrow, and happy memories, it will touch anyone who has experienced this kind of wrenching loss. "Sunny Day In the Woods" has a warm, serene mood and a feeling of freedom. "Suspicion" is another favorite. It begins gently and innocently, but a questioning feeling soon develops and then agitation. The piece builds momentum as the torment increases, pulls back a bit and questions more rationally and hopefully until doubt starts to take over and the intensity returns. This piece tells quite a story! "Forgotten Perfume" is a lovely daydream set to music. "Temptation" is dark and agitated, being pulled in two directions. Very effective! "Garden In May" is warm, graceful, and enchanting. "My Cozy Bed" is, well, cozy! The flute and cello create a dreamlike mood that becomes more intense and dramatic, melting back into the original theme. "Imaginary Lake" closes the CD with a more experimental piece that evokes a lot of visuals - placid water, birds flying, fish jumping, leaves fluttering. At almost eight minutes, it evolves naturally and peacefully - another very beautiful piece!
"The Call" is quite an achievement for Yelena Eckemoff. She is planning concerts with the ensemble - something to look forward to! Highly recommended for the serious music fan.