With all of the worldwide hue and cry concerning immigration, precious little is said about the lives of immigrants themselves, the sacrifices they’ve made and the risks they’ve taken in order to start their lives anew; free of whatever hardships and oppression they endured in their native country. In the news, entire lives are boiled down to reports of another capsized boat in the Mediterranean, or another truckload of hopeful souls stopped at the border. Even those who immigrate legally as individuals are, in essence, sacrificing nearly everything; gambling that the promise of their adopted homeland is not simply a desperate fantasy. This is something that pianist and composer Yelena Eckemoff knows about first-hand, hence the title of this album; Leaving Everything Behind. Arriving in the USA from Russia in 1991, Eckemoff and her husband spoke no English and had less than $20 to their name. Worse yet, they had to leave their three small children behind with her parents for 14 months while they got their feet on the ground in their new country.
Originally a classical pianist, Eckemoff also had to leave her identity as an artist behind. Fortunately, she’s made the most of this opportunity to reinvent herself. Blessed with prodigious classical chops, Eckemoff’s a gutsy, imaginative improviser. She’s also a gifted composer who’s devised a totally original take on the whole jazz-classical hybrid concept. The first couple of minutes of “Prologue” are sufficient to shatter any idea that her music is anything at all like that of Claude Bolling, John Lewis, or Jacques Loussier. Effortlessly modern, with nothing to prove beyond total involvement in the moment, Eckemoff presents the listener with a thoroughly modern, yet intimate and highly personal sound-world. All of the compositions on Leaving Everything Behind are Eckemoff’s originals. Several of these date from the 1980s; a time when she was just beginning her exploration into jazz. Interestingly, these pieces seem highly refined, replete with airy, vague harmonies that refer equally to Bill Evans and Claude Debussy.
Though she’s recorded previously with Billy Hart, both Ben Street and Mark Feldman are new musical partners. Feldman, in particular, proves to be an unusually sympathetic and effective co-conspirator. Best known as John Zorn’s violinist-of-choice when it comes to his own contemporary compositions, Feldman—like Eckemoff—has successfully forged a musical career that artfully straddles the parallel worlds of classical performance and jazz improvisation. His beautifully-articulated, almost vocal, lines are pitch- perfect throughout Leaving Everything Behind. It’s immediately apparent that he really “gets” what Eckemoff is trying to do in her music. Yet, it’s his blues-saturated improvisation on the title track and on the album-closing “A Date in Paradise” that sends chills up and down one’s spine.
Hart and Street form an unusually sensitive and aware rhythm tandem. Eckemoff’s tunes are quite demanding; both impressionistic and complex. These guys make the right choices every time. Though the album completely lacks ballads, per se, both “Ocean of Pines” and “Spots of Light” have a languid feel with sections that totter on the edge of rubato without ever completely going out of time. This is where Hart and Street really shine. They solve these musical puzzles with grace and aplomb, never overplaying yet never allowing the music to get bogged down in itself.
And for all my prattle about jazz and classical music, Leaving Everything Behind is definitely not one of those floaty, ECM-like, chilled-out chamber jazz albums. Eckemoff also draws some inspiration from Russian folk music, and from modern jazz pianists such as Evans, Keith Jarrett, and perhaps even Marilyn Crispell. These influences show up on “Rising From Within,” “Coffee and Thunderstorm,” and “Love Train;” all tough, muscular, highly rhythmic tunes that have the sort of visceral tension-and-release one expects from modern jazz.
An accomplished visual artist and writer, Eckemoff also did the cover art and wrote poems that distill and re- frame the emotional content of each corresponding piece. She also produced the album herself. And her immigration story has a happy ending: now a well-established recording artist who’s collaborated with jazz heavyweights such as Peter Erskine, Jon Christensen, Arild Andersen, Mark Turner and George Mraz (to name a few), Eckemoff has created a unique place for herself in the world of jazz and improvised music.