Pianist Yelena Eckemoff Continues Her Inimitable Exploration of Visual Arts, Poetry and Classically-Informed Jazz on Blooming Tall Phlox, For the First Time Featuring an All-Finnish Lineup of Young Rising Stars.
It’s not uncommon to read about musicians – especially those who deal solely in instrumental music – struggling to come up with titles for their compositions and albums; while oftentimes composing music with emotional intent, their music rarely possesses any specific meaning or inspiration. For Yelena Eckemoff, this has rarely been the case. The Russian-born pianist/composer’s release of 2016, Leaving Everything Behind, was based on the considerable emotional impact of emigrating from her country of origin, over two decades ago – and, until she and her husband were settled in North Carolina, where they still reside, her children as well.
Not all of Eckemoff’s albums are as eminently plaintive as Leaving Behind, but her most recent recordings, in particular, have not only represented musical statements but visual ones as well, with the pianist not only contributing the artwork that graces her album covers, but throughout her CD booklets. Even more recently, with the release of albums like 2015’s Lions, Eckemoff has also begun to write poetry that, alongside her artwork, creates an even more emotional experience when listening to her music.
Blooming Tall Phlox is Eckemoff’s tenth album since shifting gears from the classical music of her early career and a mid-career break to raise her children into a more firmly and decidedly jazz focus with the 2010 release of Cold Sun. Augmented by her compelling artwork and poetry, Eckemoff now adds the impact of human senses to her music…in the case of Blooming Tall Phlox, that of smell. Increasingly imbued by her distinctive, recognizable approach to melody, song titles like “Apples Laid Out on the Floor,” “Wildflower Meadows” and “Old Fashioned Bread Store” not only palpably evoke these alluring odors, but provide both vivid and immediate imagery and inspiration for this two-CD, 98-minute set of fifteen new compositions, divided into two parts: Summer Smells and Winter Smells.
“I had the idea of writing music about smell for some time before I met with [drummer] Olavi [Louhivuori] in Finland,” Eckemoff says. “The idea came into focus when I saw how much Finland reminded me of Russia; it became obvious to me that it would be the best place to record an album about smells. I brought fifteen songs to the session, already named and designed to express certain smells. Writing the poetry came later, even though I nurtured my ideas along with the music. Then I had to select a title for the album, which was not easy. But as I was writing my poems, it became clear that there is one smell that triggers my childhood memories: the smell of the phlox. So I decided to paint a picture of myself in my grandparent’s garden, sniffing the phlox, based on a black and white photograph from the time.”
“When I saw that there was too much music to fit on one disc, I considered the preexisting names of the songs, each describing a memory triggered by a certain smell,” Eckemoff continues. “As a result, there was a story about my summer and winter school breaks that I always spent at my grandparents’ town, making the division of the album into summer and winter smells quite natural.”
Creating increasingly multi-disciplinary music is not Eckemoff’s only change with Blooming Tall Phlox. Following a string of recordings with internationally renowned Norwegian musicians like Arild Andersen, Tore Brunborg, Jon Christensen and Mats Eilertsen, and A-list Americans including Peter Erskine, Billy Hart, Mark Turner, Joe Locke and Mark Feldman, Eckemoff recruited some of Finland’s best young, up-and-coming players for Blooming Tall Phlox. In addition to trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, already garnering international attention for his series of recordings for Germany’s ACT label, and Olavi Louhivuori, whose contributions to albums on the heralded ECM label with artists including Tomasz Stanko and Mats Eilertsen have, since 2009, also placed the drummer/percussionist on the global map, Eckemoff enlisted vibraphonist Panu Savolainen and double bassist Antti Lötjönen – two rising stars in their own country, and both already showing the promise of even broader recognition.
“In 2012, after recording in Copenhagen, I traveled across the Nordic countries,” Eckemoff explains. “In Finland, I met with drummer Olavi Louhivuori, who I knew from his work with Mats Eilertsen and Tomasz Stanko. I felt a very good vibe as we sat and chatted at Cafe Angel in Helsinki, and on the spur of the moment I decided that I should arrange a recording session in Finland the following year. Olavi recommended his friends Verneri and Antti – they’ve played a lot together – and also Panu Savolainen, a hot rising star vibraphonist, since I expressed an interest in adding that instrument to the project – my first experience working with vibes and only my second with a trumpeter.
“Taking advantage of being in Finland for a few days, I looked at a few studios, and I fell in love with the privately owned and operated Petrax studio in Holola, which was located in a very rural area on an active farm. Musicians had to stay on the premises in the adjacent apartments during the recording session; the owner’s wife even cooked fabulous dinners and provided all kind of snacks. But the biggest attraction for me was the vibe I got from its spacious studio and grand piano, an old Bechstein, that sounded big and felt very different, to the point that it was quite a challenge to make friends with the instrument; but it was an interesting task for me to unveil its character.”
Certainly the sound of Blooming Tall Phlox is consistent with the high sonic standards established by Eckemoff on her prior recordings – the result, no doubt, of studio engineer Julius Mauranen’s keen ear…and that of renowned American engineer Rich Breen (Oregon, Yellowjackets, Charlie Haden), who mixed and mastered the recording. But more important is how a group of musicians with whom Eckemoff had not previously engaged impacted the session. “In preparation for the session (almost a year), I had a chance to get acquainted with the work of my Finnish band members, learning how they sounded and where their strengths lay,” Eckemoff recalls, “composing with them in mind. Verneri has a very unique sound and his own way of playing, which I think is his greatest asset. Antti is very charismatic and a super team player; and all three of them – Verneri, Antti and Olavi – played very tightly together and understood each other’s every whim. Panu had not played with them before, but he felt right at home…remarkable, especially considering that he was in his early twenties at that point. The youngest on our team, he already possessed amazing technique as a vibraphonist, was a talented improviser, a great sight reader, and at ease with any given task.
“I have to say,” Eckemoff continues, “that it was a great pleasure to lead these fabulous young players during our three-day encounter in a studio. They approached every song with zest and took pleasure in interpreting my music material. I think you can tell that we all enjoyed making music together by the aura that surrounds this record.”
An aura that becomes immediately evident from the first notes of the title track, which opens Blooming Tall Phlox’s first disc. Eckemoff’s greatest strength, beyond a technical acumen first developed in her classical years, to accomplish anything to which she sets her mind, may be composition and arrangement, but she’s always possessed a particular gift in finding and surrounding herself with the right players, capable of intuitive spontaneity – interpreting her detailed arrangements both individually and collectively, and contributing solos of tremendous imagination and virtuosity. But with Blooming Tall Phlox – and in collaboration with a group of musicians largely lesser-known than those with whom she’s worked in the past, but possessed of a chemistry that comes from much time spent working together, in the case of Pohjola, Louhivuori and Lötjönen – Eckemoff has managed to once again raise her game with this diverse yet unified program.
And Eckemoff’s range is broad, as a pianist, composer and arranger. Her music can seamlessly move between ethereal abstractions and arpeggio-driven thematic constructs; play liberally with time or swing with surprising fervor; juxtapose gentle balladry, defined by beautifully unfolding series of motifs, with greater angularity and extemporaneous freedom; positively sing with mellifluous lyricism or challenge preconception with knotty idiosyncrasies while, bolstered by an organic meshing of frenetic grooves and in-the-moment interaction, providing contexts for expressive improvisational élan from Eckemoff and her exceptional quintet, the pianist’s firm yet plaint touch successfully unveiling, indeed, the character of her Bechstein. With the exception of a small handful of through-composed material, most of Blooming Tall Phlox’s fifteen compositions demonstrate a remarkable confluence of form and freedom, couched within the context of some of Eckemoff’s most challenging yet appealing charts to date. And yet, despite the openness, the immediacy and unpredictability that pervades much of Blooming Tall Phlox, there’s no shortage of affecting lyricism, whether it’s the thematically rich “Wildflower Meadows” or temporally fluid tone poem “Sleeping in the Tent,” where Eckemoff’s scripted lines provide expansive improvisational opportunities.
It didn’t begin that way. “‘Sleeping in the Tent’ began as a long, through-composed piece,” Eckemoff recalls. “I was a bit uneasy when we approached this one at the recording and opted to do it in sections. The guys were sight-reading my written material, and we recorded it in several sections. Then, on the last day, we decided to try playing the whole thing from top to bottom to see what would happen, and it was the most fun we had playing together. We pretty much stayed true to the composed material, but since everyone had already learned it, we followed each other, staying together even when somebody was veering off and breaking into improvised phrases. Verneri then decided to overdub the whole piece with a muted trumpet. The song came out wild and creepy…exactly the way I wanted it to be, and this was probably the most creative playing of the session. I used that take exactly the way it came out, and to my ears it was perfect.”
Blooming Tall Phlox also demonstrates, between Eckemoff’s impeccable playing and interaction with her superb bandmates, that her early classical training/experience may still be a part of her DNA, but what she is doing now is irrefutably jazz. Playfully imbued with vitality, energy, creativity and, perhaps most importantly, an unrelenting sound of surprise that reveals more with each and every listen, Blooming Tall Phlox proves that it is possible to reinvent oneself. Over six years and ten recordings, Eckemoff has evolved into a deeply creative jazz artist: not just a pianist capable of engaging with some of the finest jazz musicians on the planet, but a composer/arranger who can surprise them with unexpected and enigmatic music that drives them to even further levels of excellence. It’s a potent combination that, with Blooming Tall Phlox , not only raises her own already high bar, but those of Pohjola, Savolainen, Lötjönen and Louhivuori as well.
“They all were fearless yet easy-going band mates,” Eckemoff enthuses, “with a lot of creative energy and eager attitude. There was nothing they would not dare do, and at the same time they were very respectful of my written music and sensitive to my directions and lead.”
Blooming Tall Phlox is both a consistent fit within Eckemoff’s overall discography and a move into areas previously unexplored for a pianist who, rather than constantly thinking about where she is now, is always (and, at this moment, already) thinking ahead. She already has her next album in the can and, if the exceptional Blooming Tall Phlox is any indication, it will no doubt continue the upward trajectory that this daring pianist/composer has been on since she first appeared in the jazz world just six short years ago, garnering increased attention from publications ranging from Downbeat to Jazztimes and to Jazzwise and Jazzthing.
Press Release by John Kelman.