Trained in an intensive ten-year classical piano program at Moscow’s Gnessins School, and after quietly making records for over two decades, Russian native Yelena Eckemoff has been transitioning to a form of hybrid, classically informed improvisation with some exceptional results. 2010’s Cold Sun, a trio featuring the exquisite drumming of Peter Erskine, was a tremendous musical statement for a leader making an early foray into improvisation and a record that is well worth seeking out to this day.
With A Touch of Radiance, Eckemoff is expanding beyond her well-honed trio format into a quintet featuring some of New York’s first-call jazz practitioners. The result is an album that leans more heavily on the lingua franca of jazz that any of her previous efforts, but that still retains significant classical influences in the piano playing and compositional structure.
Eckemoff’s music has always been about melody and composition over self- indulgent flame throwing and bombast, and A Touch of Radiance follows in that same vein. The record is full of intricate pieces featuring improvisations that are well integrated into structured musical frameworks. One of Eckemoff’s classically based devices is a sort of rolling circular motif below either her own improvisations, or in this case behind Joe Locke‘s vibes on “Reminiscence.” In this instance, however, drummer Billy Hart changes the rhythm mid-stream to provide a more conventional jazz beat over which Eckemoff and then tenorist Mark Turner take their solos: a seamless transition and integration of musical traditions.
“Exuberance” opens with a piano vamp closely underwritten by bassist George Mraz before Turner enters with the melody. Eckemoff improvises a little on the vamp, both assembling the tune and deconstructing it just a little at the same time. Turner quickly breaks the melody into a lengthy solo, followed directly by Locke. Like other really good leaders, Eckemoff does not insist on playing constantly. She has the great sense to know when to lay out in favor of her band mates when it makes musical sense to do so.
Taken as a whole, A Touch of Radiance maintains consistently high compositional standards, first-rate musical craftsmanship, and an inspired level of creativity. There are no standards or battle axes here, and none of the tracks are throwaways. It’s a relaxed date, but that can be deceiving: A careful listen will reveal elegantly complex music. Everyone involved is playing at his or her best.
Locke, Turner, Mraz, and Hart are jazz guys, no two ways around it. And though Eckemoff has written all of these compositions and plays piano with a certain classical sensibility, A Touch of Radiance reflects their outlooks as much as hers. That makes a richer musical experience woven from the contributions of a group of musicians who are all leaders in their own right: a first-rate record with a truly creative spirit.