Russian-born pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff is known for blending Russian romanticism with the American jazz tradition. Nocturnal Animals is the latest in a long line of spellbinding concept albums that have rightly been defined as sonic portrait galleries.
Eckemoff is a truly remarkable artist, one possessing a seemingly bottomless well of energy and ideas (Nocturnal Animals is apparently her fifteenth release in ten years). In featuring her playing, compositions, artwork, and poetry, this latest collection testifies to the incredible creative resources she consistently draws upon and makes the release, eighty-seven explorative minutes in total, resonate all the more memorably for being so personalized. …Her classical background lends her playing a dignified and subtly aristocratic (though not stuffy) quality, while her love for jazz infuses it with an insistent rhythmic flow. She’s no maximalist intent on overwhelming the listener with a barrage of notes, but neither is she a minimalist. Her playing appears as an imaginative stream of invention that gives her partners ample material to respond to. She and Andersen act as a tag-team of sorts, the bassist shadowing her and assuming a prominent role as both melodist and soloist. Nocturnal Animals is also elevated by the Christensen-Strønen combination. Rather than adding excessive density, the two generate a rich array of drums, cymbals, and percussion sounds. Without putting too fine a point on it, Strønen provides a deferential, clutter-free foundation which Christensen adds to with tom-tom accents and cymbal flourishes. The cumulative result is a multi-layered music where multiple things are happening at once, and the listener is never less than engaged.
Eckemoff pens complex tunes which reflect her classical training and, at the same time, seem to have a feeling of a folk music direction. The sound her bandmates create alongside Eckemoff is subtle, shimmering, translucently gorgeous, featuring Eckemoff displaying her most delicate touch. Bassist Andersen is typically muscular—the backbone of the band—while drummers Christensen and Stronen weave and counter-weave backdrops of diaphanous fabric—a tapestry of spider webs. Through her boundless ambition, determination and expansive talent, Eckemoff has turned herself into a major jazz artist with a consistently outstanding discography all on her own L & H Production label.
The number of beats with which the Russian pianist knocks out her albums is always astonishing. Eckemoff loves themed albums and has therefore supplemented “Nocturnal Animals” with poems about such animals that can be read in the CD booklet… The majestic “Toad” sets a monument to the toad in the jazz context for the first time… With her top-class band, Eckemoff achieves atmospheric, mostly well-paced chamber pieces that bear witness to their overflowing ingenuity.
Nocturnal Animals plays small, in quiet, stealthy patter. The choice to go with double-bassist Andersen, who’s appeared on several of her past works, and two drummers, Jon Christensen and Thomas Strønen, blends well with the heartbeat of these animals that humans sense more often than see, and often, with fear and trepidation, if not wonder. ..As Eckemoff lights this gradual ascent from darkness, she touches the eternal and the earthly with renewed purpose.
Nobody can ever accuse Eckemoff of not being ambitious. She has taken us a lot of different places over the course of her career so far and this time she takes us impressionistically into the world of nocturnal animals spreading the work over two discs… She doesn’t have to try hard to take her piano to new places but she certainly extends her reach here.
Her first jazz album, “Cold Sun”, with bassist Mads Vinding and drummer Peter Erskine, was recorded in 2009, and that Manfred Eicher of ECM did not pick her up there and then, may well be considered a mistake by the German. She has always been concerned with the ingenious and a bit strange in nature, which is perhaps why her relationship with the Nordic countries is so strong.