It’s fulfilling to hear an artist evolve. In this regard, Yelena Eckemoff has heeded callings definable only by the language of the spirit. The Russian-born pianist and composer comes from a rigorous classical background, and within those parameters has shaped a quiet yet assured corpus of jazz albums stretching back to 2006’s The Call. Since then she has assembled numerous ad hoc bands, caressing ebonies and ivories alongside Arild Andersen, Marilyn Mazur, Peter Erskine, and many other established names in the field. On A Touch of Radiance she finds herself in the supernal company of tenorist Mark Turner, vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Billy Hart. As the self-styled Yelena Eckemoff Quintet, they forge an astonishingly delicate soundscape.
Recorded at New York’s legendary Avatar Studios and averaging seven minutes each, the album’s ten originals show Eckemoff to be a democratic catalyst. Her atmospheres possess integrity, not least of all for their intimation. As such, titles like “Reminiscence” and “Exuberance” are no mere descriptors, but reflections of more complex emotional states. (True to form, Eckemoff provides a poem in the CD booklet for each respective track.) “Affection,” for one, is not as dulcet as one might expect, but ruminates in shadows, chromatic dissonances, and treats memory not as a canvas but as underdeveloped film. Turner brings a river’s flow to this unusual tune, contrasting with Locke’s brighter energies. “Pep,” for another, sparks even more idiosyncratic flames. These flicker through Eckemoff’s playing, which here achieves gnarled brilliance. Turner emotes in striations, not pillars, and again shares lovely crosstalk with Locke’s mallets.
None of which is to say there aren’t any overtly programmatic moments. Tracks such as “Reminiscence,” “Exuberance,” and “Radiance” are exactly what they purport to be. The first of these is notable for Hart’s pastel monologue, the second for Mraz’s foundry, and the third for Eckemoff’s raindrop pianism, sparkling and free. And all of them are shuttled through a loom of childhood memory and innocent wanderings through pastures to which one becomes blind in adulthood.
Other tunes float somewhere in between, achieving deepest insight in the album’s zenith, “Reconciliation.” Not only is it Eckemoff’s finest studio achievement, but its dovetailing of melody, mood, and magic draws her collaborators into some inspired being. Turner in particular gives the breadth of his abilities to small worlds through effortless unpacking, making of them universes unto themselves.
Of the bandleader’s own playing we are treated to tasteful selections in the set’s most somber turns. In the melting snow of “Imagination” and more impressionistic “Tranquility,” her touch remains gentle and unobtrusive, forever invested in the beauty of the everyday. As in the album’s opener, “Inspiration,” she finds greatest happiness in exactly that.
Whether occupying foreground or background, she is the gentle adhesive that sticks every finished photo into the emerging diary. For that’s exactly what this album feels like: a familiar volume to the clasp of which each musician adds ornament, able to be unlocked only by a listener’s curiosity.