5.0 out of 5 stars
Title: Another beautiful set of European chamber jazz
I really can’t believe that two months on i’m first here to be writing a review. Shows that Yelena Eckemoff continues to be the ‘worst’ kept secret in jazz – ‘worst’ because way too few people are aware of her. So, to start from scratch, Yelena is a Russian child-prodigy pianist, classically trained at the Moscow Conservatoire, now living in the US and very much jazz focussed, but a jazz that clearly shows the hallmarks of her classical background. She has recorded prolifically, about an album per year, with a long list of musical luminaries, Pete Erskine, Manu Katche, Arild Anderson, Billy Hart, etc, queuing up to record with her. I get the impression she doesn’t tour which may be why she isn’t better known. She’s clearly happy that the music just gets made and gets out there, and willing to let it take its time to find the audience that just don’t know how much they’re going to love it yet.
I first encountered her music through a facebook music group of broad eclectic tastes but with a natural hub around the ECM musical paradigm. Many of the musicians Yelena has recorded with are old ECM hands, but she herself is not an ECM signing. In fact, while there is much of the gentle, introspective ECM aesthetic to her work there’s a bit more interest to her compositions than the Nordic minimalism which i myself find a bit too empty to fully relate to. Yelena’s music is very much composition led. She is not one for a vamping left hand while her right flies away with pianistic acrobatics. She is much more about carefully constructed counterpoint, where harmonising lines move in and out and are passed from hand to hand in a way that is essentially classical, yet the music is undoubtedly jazz. After the very first YouTube clip i watched her in i made the comment in the group that she reminded me of Thelonious Monk, of whom i am a fan. I didn’t have to listen too much more though to realise that her playing was about as opposite to Monk’s jabbing, staccato, stumbling as it was possible to be. Indeed i have concluded that the artist she most reminds me of, in terms of pianistic control of colour and dynamics is another favourite, Jaques Loussier. This is not at all to say that Yelena’s music is in any way overtly Bach inspired, though i have no doubt that Bach has figured in her training from the start. Rather it is the elegance and mastery of tone that evokes Loussier. Indeed one of her critical characteristics is that her music is so very much her own, her music doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.
Her compositions are very elaborate. There are photos of her pieces written out on manuscript paper on an enlarged stand spanning the width of the whole piano. Improvisation does occur, occasionally moving into quite abstract territory, particularly in dialogues with percussion. But it is in fact difficult to tell where the improvisation starts and the composition stops, so interesting is the latter and so well honed to the piece in question is the former. Her music is a remarkable combination of warm elegance and lively exploration. There is a way in which every one of her albums is always reliably the same and always completely different, as indeed is every track. At the bottom of it all one can say that everything she does is beautiful.
Her pieces are always compositions rather than songs, adding a narrative, almost storytelling quality moving from beginning to middle to end. Her albums are always exquisitely packaged with her own artwork that is quite as inimitable as the music, and with a small accompanying prose poem in the booklet to accompany each song which adds a philosophical dimension to the pieces revealing a reverence for nature and natural innocence in its widest meaning. All her albums are gorgeously recorded and are Audiophile artefacts in their own right.
On this double disc album of over 90 minutes, she is joined by the prolific Arild Andersen on bass, and two subtle drummer/percussionists, Thomas Stronen, who is unknown to me and the late, great and much lamented Jon Christensen. In a sense it doesn’t matter where you start with Yelena’s music. Just sample one and, if you’re into deep but intimate, thought-provoking jazz, you will be wanting more.