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Desert Quartet 4

From Press Release by Lloyd Sachs

She was born and raised in Moscow, emigrated with her family to North Carolina, and knows of deserts mainly from books. But if you think Yelena Eckemoff’s lack of direct exposure to Bedouins, sand dunes, and dust storms would keep her from recording a work that evokes those things, you don’t know the power of this pianist-composer’s imagination.

Desert, Eckemoff’s latest in a string of sweeping concept albums, captures the Arabian Desert in all its mystery and natural allure not only with its 11 thematically linked compositions, but also with original poems, prose, and (as she frequently provides) album art.

“When the coils of Time were dissolved/The desert endured,” she writes in one of the poems. “Once the magnificent sun, the source of life/Ceased to shine/The desert was still there.”

Featuring Oregon oboist Paul McCandless, Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, and super-versatile drummer Peter Erskine—all celebrated veterans of ECM, the German label whose ethereal sound is frequently invoked in discussions of Eckemoff—Desert is a culmination of her lyrical blend of jazz and classical music. (She leans toward Bach, Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel more than Russian composers.)

But Eckemoff has been imprinted by her Russian soul, vivid memories of the picture books with which she entertained herself as an only child, and what she calls the “sinuous” nature of her personal narrative. With her modern, sometimes free-leaning approach and the weight and intensity her music attains, Eckemoff and her music are strikingly original.

“I’m a very emotional person,” she says. “So many things have vanished from my life. When you express these things in your music, when you share your experiences, you compensate for your losses. Music makes you whole again.”

With its curling lines, seductive feeling, and slow-building drama, “Dance” builds a subtle bridge between Arabic music and jazz. “Mirages” ventures outside the mainstream with the leader’s swirling, dissonant chords and spatial adventures. On “Dust Storm,” the quartet evokes the calm before the drama with its spare reflections, signifying a change in atmosphere via McCandless’s shift from oboe to bass clarinet. (Desert also features him on English horn and soprano saxophone.)

One of the great things about the prolific Eckemoff, who put out numerous albums, some of them classical, before making her bona fide jazz debut eight years ago, is you never know where she’s going. The song titles on Desert only begin to suggest the larger themes that emerge.

One key to her artistry is her dedication to sounds that has many intertwined threads. “I haven’t composed much for solo piano,” she says. “I’m always hearing instruments and the ways they go together.”

Though you could easily imagine her coloristic pieces being performed by a Maria Schneider-type big band, she strongly prefers the intimacy of small groups. “I’m not interested in larger ensembles,” she says. “I don’t feel a need to involve that many players.”

For Desert, Eckemoff read extensively about the subject, including several books about Bedouins. “I wanted to know what kind of people they are,” she says. “How is it that they’ve managed to change with the times, finding freedom in such harsh conditions. I wanted to capture the true soul of Bedouins. 

“I may never have been to the Arabian Desert, but maybe I have a genetic memory of it,” she adds, relating to the fact that she has some Persian blood in her.

In envisioning the recording of Desert, she says, she entertained the notion of going to Dubai and setting up shop in the desert. “I like to dream big,” she says. “But it was too expensive to realize that kind of vision.

“I thought, who in America would be the best fit for this project? I thought of Paul and his oboe, on which he is so expressive, and decided this is the sound I wanted. Peter helped me connect with Paul, who really is the reason for this group.

“As for Arild and Peter, they had just the right voices for my melodies and compositions. I feel like when I have these guys around, I can do anything.”


As indicated by the presence on her albums of so many distinguished players—her 2014 gem, A Touch of Radiance, dedicated to no less a force than happiness, features Mark Turner, Joe Locke, George Mraz, and Billy Hart and she also has recorded with Chris Potter, Mark Feldman, and Jon Christensen—more and more musicians are feeling the same way about working with one of Russia’s great gifts to America. As Erskine put it after the Desert recording session, “Yelena brings out the best in all of us.”