Certainly jazz has never had a character like Yelena Eckemoff. …If you have some prejudices, please put it aside: Yelena is a jazz musician with flakes, as shown by these two beautiful records that underline, song by song, the art of creating expectations or tensions.
A Touch of Radiance
There are ten songs each with a moment of inspiration from the pianist, both literary in the poems within the booklet and the musical. But even for the passionate participation of musicians in the project, everything sounds very compact, as if the musicians had always been together. There is a surprising total empathy with the Russian musician’s musical world. Her compositions are rather complex, always rich in ideas and details that go far from nothing and add that something special that makes this work a unique experience. She takes solos, but leaves a lot of room for her sideman, a well-structured space on which never-missed interventions emerge.
Eckemoff also shows her skills as a Qunitett in the interplay with the jazz-greats Mark Turner; Joe Locke, George Mraz and; Billy Hart conjures up A Touch of Radiance 10 small masterpieces of outstanding improvisational art. High jazz school of a woman who – you believe it hardly – has already released albums for 20 years. Hopefully,
she soon enjoys the broadest recognition which you no doubt deserve.
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. “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.
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.
Pianist Yelena Eckemoff is a major jazz talent yet to receive the critical attention she deserves. “A Touch of Radiance is her 14th release of what she calls “original instrumental music,” an inapt label for her genre-defying style, which combines the harmonic textures and compositional rigor of European classical music with the indeterminacy of jazz.
At the height of her creativity, she found like-minded musicians who were also activists. They hung out in a jazz studio founded by some of those activists who could play. There, she and her colleagues hungrily absorbed as much traditional jazz as they could lay their hands on. Those jazz principles would fuel her into breaking away as a most original artist with something to say and a unique style with which to say it.
In a music scene that seems to privilege musicians who fit into easily definable categories, identifiable genres, when that rare artist comes along who defies easy categorization, that artist might well find herself on the outside looking in. If it’s too difficult to define what she’s doing, the easy way out is simply to ignore her.
So when a musical power broker like iTunes identifies the latest release from pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff and her quintet, A Touch of Radiance, as “alternative,” while others see what she does as jazz (jazz perhaps touched with a classical feel) it becomes essential to define what seems to be going on in the album. And what is going on is a programmatic description of the composer’s emotional journey in a soundscape transfused with the varied elements of her musical vocabulary – jazz and classical. ..Eckemoff, who in the past has worked with a trio, has enlarged her ensemble which now has Mark Turner playing tenor sax, Joe Locke on vibraphone, George Mraz on double bass, and Billy Hart on drums. It is a tight group that seems to thoroughly buy into the composer’s aesthetic, and the result is a finely-tuned, unified album.
The album, which is attributed to the Yelena Eckemoff Quartet, is the first to feature Eckemoff playing in more than a trio. With a background in both classical music and jazz, her vision is a singular and challenging one. “She has her own thing – it is not a copy of another person’s music like you run into almost all the time,” Mraz said.
Pianist Yelena Eckemoff inhabits the eerie netherworld somewhere between jazz, classical and film music. Russian-born, classically trained, jazz-inclined, she’s one of this era’s most individualistic and instantly recognizable artists. ..Throughout the album, Eckemoff plays with sepulchrally confident chops and an unassailable upper-register glimmer: she’s never met a spiraling icicle phrase she couldn’t nail. For people who like nine-minute songs, and dark music in general, this is one of those rare albums that’s an absolute must-own – and one of the best of 2014.
In America, Yelena Eckemoff is the new kid on the block. But the Russian pianist and composer plays as if she were born to the role of a jazz veteran. ..Yelena Eckemoff manages to impart a greater sense of herself in 10 short story tracks with a quartet of likeminded musicians. She touches on the jazz-classical-avant-garde, art and poetry, and a narrative that sees the human connection in every leaf, the passing flutter of butterflies, and a snowy day in the summer — radiant.
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. ..Taken as a whole, A Touch of Radiance maintains consistently high compositional standards, first-rate musical craftsmanship, and an inspired level of creativity. 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.
Labeling Yelena Eckemoff a musician would be too limiting. The immensely gifted pianist not only composed all 10 tracks on her new album. She also painted the stunning landscape on its cover, and she wrote a poem to accompany each track all of which are included in the CD booklet for “A Touch Of Radiance.” ..With a piano style that gracefully combines beautiful touch with aggressive bite, Eckemoff embraces the role of the searcher. ..This quintet is akin to five sensitive painters who create vibrant murals that are accessible yet visually challenging.
After a few trio albums including players like Vinding, Erskine and the bassist Arild Andersen, where Eckemoff wanted to go reached a new realization with A Touch of Radiance. Informed by her classical training, Eckemoff writes in open-ended, elusive structures that are closer to sonata form than standard 16- or 32-bar verse-chorus arrangements. But working with Turner, Hart, vibraphonist Joe Locke and bassist George Mraz, she has created exploratory, lyrical pieces that combine melodies and orchestrations that sound at once clearly directed and freely improvised.