This is the sixth album by the classical pianist from the Soviet Union who moved to the U.S. in the ’90s and turned to jazz. Down the years Yelena has always had a fine ear for collaborators – in her trio they have included Peter Erskine, Marilyn Mazur and Arild Andersen – and this time around she expands the personnel to a quintet.
And what a quintet! Mark Turner is on tenor saxophone, Joe Locke on vibraphone, George Mraz on double bass and Billy Hart on drums.
All the music is composed by Eckemoff and she has started to link the tunes to poems in the CD booklet. As she explained to me: “since my music is based on my feelings, thoughts, experiences and imagination… I think reading these notes helps to understand what my music is about and what I try to express.”
The poems are as evocative as the music. Take Reminiscence, for example. Yelena sets a mood with her introductory chords, and Turner and Locke take it up. The melody and harmony feel simultaneously of a past era – perhaps a Romantic classical one? – and also thoroughly present. And the poem begins seemingly in the present with a description of a room but soon becomes a memory from Yelena’s childhood.
The way in which the pianist and composer feeds her classical music heritage into a modern jazz situation is fascinating, and it gives her compositions a really solid structure, while also expanding the musical elements the soloists have to work with. Written interludes come and go within the freer sections, with the transitions marvelously smooth. I suspect it moves these jazz players slightly out of their comfort zone, and the results really do sound most original.
Each piece has a single word title – Inspiration, Exuberance, Pep, Affection, Tranquility, Imagination… The one that I think best exemplifies Yelena Eckemoff’s music is the final one, which also forms part of the album title: Radiance. The poem that accompanies it is a light and dark tale of a moth attracted to the danger of a night light, but it then becomes about the coming of dawn, the moth replaced by a butterfly. The music has a steady development to it, with both dark and light sonorities.
Like the rest of the album, it has an internal gleam which draws – and warms – both the players and the listener.