Pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff has restlessly explored a new theme with each new album, with a shifting group of musicians. The central event behind the album title Leaving Everything Behind was her departure from the Soviet Union in 1991. She and her husband came to the United States to start a new life, having literally left everything behind—even their children, left indefinitely with Eckemoff’s parents until the couple could get established. To explore this theme she returned to older original material, some dating as far back as the 1980s, some composed as recently as 2008 (an especially fruitful composing year).
Having trained as a classical pianist at the Moscow State Conservatory, Eckemoff’s classical chops were finely honed. She became interested in jazz in her 20s, so even the oldest pieces here were born with jazz leanings. But Eckemoff considers 2010’s Cold Sun her first true jazz album, making this music she describes as “music I composed when I knew very little—if anything at all—about the modern jazz field.” Her jazz recordings have always had a strong through-composed element, giving them a classical chamber music foundation within an improvisational jazz setting. These pieces are the same, and indeed the listener is unlikely to notice their age. Instead they demonstrate a creative common thread present in Eckemoff’s music for many years.
This quartet is well equipped for the challenge of revitalizing this older material. Violinist and improviser Mark Feldman (John Abercrombie, Uri Caine) is the lead voice, supported by bassist Ben Street (Danilo Perez, David Virelles, Billy Hart Quartet), returning veteran drummer Billy Hart (appearing on his third Eckemoff recording), and of course the composer on piano. The opener “Prologue” sets the mood with a rubato feel, just piano and drums at first. “Rising From Within” continues with a dramatic motif, followed by a contrasting section that also provides the structure for the solos. “Love Train” is driven by Hart’s vibrant groove, and he even takes a brief solo. The title tune has an especially striking Romantic theme, which Feldman makes the most of. Eckemoff recorded it by herself using piano with MIDI instruments on 2003’s Piano Chronicles I. “Ocean of Pines” also had a prior recording, on 2006’s The Call with the local ensemble Eckemoff led before she began working with international groupings.
In fact that band was the reason for the creation of these arrangements, as Eckemoff worked her old songs into trio, quartet, or quintet versions. For these sessions the improvisational element was further developed by the addition of structured improvisations, and in a few cases (e.g. “Coffee & Thunderstorm,” “Spots of Light,” “Love Train,” and “Hope Lives Eternal”) by inserting free group improvisation. Eckemoff describes her approach this way: “Traditionally, jazz is about extensive improvising on what might even be a simple tune…I provide a comprehensive, carefully thought-through musical framework…at the same time I leave much space in the framework for the creative reading by each band member.” This band embraces both the compositional framework and the improvisational elements, producing a seamless, emotional result.