Yelena Eckemoff’s Desert goes beyond the tired tropes of camels, shifting sands, and that fabled oasis into the fevered imagination of a fictional man’s mind after all is lost.
Again using her own prose and artwork, the classically trained Russian jazz pianist and composer brings together a core group of musicians and her densely complicated supernatural stories for an 11-track score.
Peter Erskine gamely goes along for the ride, percussively highlighting the journey of a man who has lost everything. Double-bassist Arild Andersen, who has played on numerous Eckemoff concept albums, returns. And Paul McCandless is a one-man band of special sound effects and mood enhancements on oboe, soprano sax, bass clarinet, and English horn. His desert touch is everywhere on this record.
Prolific beyond imagination, Eckemoff churns out a record or two a year, mostly centered around the beauty of nature and its humanizing effects.
Lately, she’s fascinated listeners with her take on the supernatural earthly effects over the human spirit. She imagined herself inhabiting the soul of a lion in her 2015 album, Lions — complete with poetry, artwork, and an original classical-jazz instrumental score.
Each one of her multi-media albums could easily become an independent movie.
She carefully thinks about the words and the images to go with her music. They are one and the same, meant to enliven the listening experience beyond a mere concept album into an immersive one.
L.A. jazz pianist/composer Josh Nelson does the same with his forays into a whole other world entirely: Mars and beyond.
On Desert, Eckemoff goes one step beyond poetry, lyricism, and jazz free style to tell the story of a man saved by the unexpected kindness of an Arabian family, and the stark, unconditional beauty of a sandy wasteland. She wrote a novella, a screenplay of sorts following the tragic life of this British man who lost his wife and daughter and goes on a safari to work himself to death out there in the desert.
From the opening track of “Bedouins”: “Living in such a harsh environment and enduring hours of heavy labor each day should bring my life to an end pretty quickly, I figured. The perfect solution!”
This British man imagines dying in a Saudi Arabian desert in order to end the pain he feels. His idea of the desert is a cliché that soon becomes an unexpected adventure, a paradox. Like Eckemoff’s music, the writing is a blend of the novelist’s patient character-development — you grow to care about this man in a hurry — and the short story writer’s desire to get to the point.
An Arabian family takes the man in, and everything changes. They take him on their journey through the desert, but it is beyond what he ever imagined of a “cloudless sky; omnipresent blazing sun; severe, inhospitable environment…” It is, instead, an oasis of serenity and stark beauty, offering surprising moments of warm, hospitable, human companionship.
Another gift of Eckemoff’s multi-tiered jazz is her ability to capture a duality of spirit in her stories. Not only does this man hope to experience the barrenness of his existence in the desert, but he already experiences it in his soul. In time, he realizes that he’s got both assumptions — of the desert and the desert of his mind — wrong.
The desert shows him that his life is worth living, after all.
Take that, O. Henry!
Eckemoff’s writing reflects her music: descriptive in places, with pockets of mesmerizing interest… unrushed, yet never boring.
She and her band shy within a hairbreadth away from the cliché sounds of a desert. Oh some of it’s there. McCandless’ oboe mimicking the snakey feel of the sand dunes, the endless vast reaches of the “cloudless sky… blazing sun.”
But they build those moments of interest, human interest, in what the man and his desert family must be feeling and thinking, what they must have seen in their travels together, joking, sharing “a drink of aromatic tea or coffee brewed over the campfire,… a hot meal, surrounded by dear friends [‘Garden Of Eden’],” memories and wisdom.
The Yelena Eckemoff Quartet’s Desert is a milky, floral, blossoming experience of soft, slow discovery for this listener — more of a score than a lyrical album.
Eckemoff does insert those pockets of lyrical interest, combining a vague sense of anticipation and conflict, as if mirroring the sound a sudden wind might make, causing mini-hurricanes of dust and sand before all is calm again. “Mirages” plays like a perfect desert soundtrack, with humanizing lyrical notes within.
“Mirages” is also quite avant-garde in its bilious sound at times, piano and woodwind, a clash of cymbals, the tip-toeing bass … rising up in a flurry, each demanding supremacy, attention, clamoring and chaotic. It’s a great interpretation of the “restless wind” that “blows and blows in its monotonous mischief, shifting the dry sand.”
You have to be in the right frame of mind to listen to Desert, or any of Eckemoff’s masterpieces.
Calm. Open. Still.
She’s quietly commanding, able to rustle up emotional storms in her music, then aching emptiness as her piano steps away from the cumulus madness of an uncontrollable world out there. “Desert’s Cry” depicts this contrast of classical beauty and jazz difference, with drops of bedouin themes in McCandless’ woodwind and brass arsenal.
If you think the music of “Desert’s Cry” is vast and searching, try reading the prose accompanying it. A perfect description of the desert, and Eckemoff’s poetic, storytelling power:
“I am vast. I am majestic. I am free from pretense. I am indestructible.
Give me some water, but not too much, because I like to be arid,
So that my dunes can sing in the wind.
Give me your steps, because I like to be walked on, but not by too many,
For I would not have all my gazelles hunted down by the greedy.
… Give me your bodies — to cherish and preserve forever,
But not so many that I would be labeled a merciless killer…”
In “Dance,” Eckemoff gives us something close to the lyrical, themes you can hum along to, a pleasing semblance of a melody, and the musical embodiment of what went on when the sun became night and the caravan settled in around the fire to watch the women dance under the “thin smile of a crescent moon.”
Yelena Eckemoff’s Desert will change your mind about checking out if you let it.