Yelena Eckemoff - piano and composition; Arild Andersen - double bass; Jon Christensen - drums and percussion; Thomas Strønen - drums and percussion
January 24, 2020
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) PAUL MCCANDLESS (oboe, English horn, sopr. sax, b. clarinet) ARILD ANDERSEN (double bass) PETER ERSKINE (drums, percussion)
May 4, 2018
DESERT Press Release
She was born and raised in Moscow, emigrated with her family to North Carolina, and knows of deserts mainly from books. But if you think Yelena Eckemoff’s lack of direct exposure to Bedouins, sand dunes, and dust storms would keep her from recording a work that evokes those things, you don’t know the power of this pianist-composer’s imagination.
Desert, Eckemoff’s latest in a string of sweeping concept albums, captures the Arabian Desert in all its mystery and natural allure not only with its 11 thematically linked compositions, but also with original poems, prose, and (as she frequently provides) album art.
“When the coils of Time were dissolved/The desert endured,” she writes in one of the poems. “Once the magnificent sun, the source of life/Ceased to shine/The desert was still there.”
Featuring Oregon oboist Paul McCandless, Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, and super-versatile drummer Peter Erskine—all celebrated veterans of ECM, the German label whose ethereal sound is frequently invoked in discussions of Eckemoff—Desert is a culmination of her lyrical blend of jazz and classical music. (She leans toward Bach, Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel more than Russian composers.)
But Eckemoff has been imprinted by her Russian soul, vivid memories of the picture books with which she entertained herself as an only child, and what she calls the “sinuous” nature of her personal narrative. With her modern, sometimes free-leaning approach and the weight and intensity her music attains, Eckemoff and her music are strikingly original.
“I’m a very emotional person,” she says. “So many things have vanished from my life. When you express these things in your music, when you share your experiences, you compensate for your losses. Music makes you whole again.”
With its curling lines, seductive feeling, and slow-building drama, “Dance” builds a subtle bridge between Arabic music and jazz. “Mirages” ventures outside the mainstream with the leader’s swirling, dissonant chords and spatial adventures. On “Dust Storm,” the quartet evokes the calm before the drama with its spare reflections, signifying a change in atmosphere via McCandless’s shift from oboe to bass clarinet. (Desert also features him on English horn and soprano saxophone.)
One of the great things about the prolific Eckemoff, who put out numerous albums, some of them classical, before making her bona fide jazz debut eight years ago, is you never know where she’s going. The song titles on Desert only begin to suggest the larger themes that emerge.
One key to her artistry is her dedication to sounds that has many intertwined threads. “I haven’t composed much for solo piano,” she says. “I’m always hearing instruments and the ways they go together.”
Though you could easily imagine her coloristic pieces being performed by a Maria Schneider-type big band, she strongly prefers the intimacy of small groups. “I’m not interested in larger ensembles,” she says. “I don’t feel a need to involve that many players.”
Born in Moscow, Yelena Eckemoff says she has been composing since she was four years old. The first music impressions she took from her mother, a pianist and teacher. Then years of academic studies at Gnessins School for musically gifted children, followed by the Moscow Conservatory, provided a solid background in classical music. But as Yelena grew into her teens, she developed an interest in other musical styles, like pop, rock, and jazz.
“Listening to all kinds of different music was a source of inspiration for me as a composer and broadened my compositional language,” she says. “Almost every day, I wrote a new tune. I was always learning new tricks.”
This was at a time when jazz recordings were so hard to come by in Russia, people were smuggling tapes into the country. In 1987, in a pivotal moment for Yelena and many other Russian musicians, she attended Dave Brubeck’s legendary concert in Moscow. His quartet performed a series of concerts in the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange.
She had already started playing jazz before seeing Brubeck, mainly traditional styles and bebop, sometimes via chance connections with musicians who came from abroad. But this was one of the first jazz performances she had ever attended.
She was so impressed that she formed her own band and “tried to play jazz.” But her songs proved too complicated for her fellow musicians (and have gotten no easier, as McCandless, Andersen, and Erskine all attested in a videotaped interview after recording Desert).
After emigrating to the United States in 1991—to their anguish, Eckemoff and her husband, young parents, temporarily had to leave their three little sons behind—she didn’t have the time or focus to pick up where she had left off with her jazz aspirations. She wasn’t exposed to much jazz—she didn’t have the money to invest in buying any recordings aside from a few cassettes—which may help explain her individuality as a jazz artist.
But while raising her children, she was able to play and compose some in her small home studio. And when they had grown up a little, she put together a band, with which she began to draw attention. She recorded a CD The Call featuring cello, flute and drums and performed with her band on a local scene. But the musicianship of her teammates, she says, still left something to be desired.
When people told her she had an ECM sound, she says, “I didn’t know what that was.” But she was soon listening to ECM artists like Bobo Stenson and John Taylor. “When I heard Arild Andersen, he left such a deep impression on me,” she says, “I dared to imagine playing with him.”
During her initial pursuit of a bass player, she looked left and right before deciding to send some of her new tunes to another prominent Scandinavian bassist, Denmark’s Mads Vinding, who had accompanied expatriated American greats including Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer, and Kenny Drew.
Vinding recorded his bass parts in Denmark for Eckemoff’s winter-themed piano-bass-drums effort, Cold Sun, and its spring-themed follow-up, Grass Catching the Wind (both released in 2010). “It sounded so cool,” she says.
But as pleased as she was with the intercontinental, bicoastal recordings, the first of which featured Peter Erskine on drums and the second Denmark’s Morten Lund, she knew she had to record her music in the live presence of a real trio. That dream became a reality when she flew to Los Angeles to record Flying Steps in the flesh with Erskine, whom she had met through connections, and Polish bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz.
“For me,” she says, “Peter was the beginning and ending of what I wanted to do with my music. Since then, I’ve been so excited about recording jazz, or whatever you want to call it! Peter called it a ‘new kind of music.’”
Touched by such styles as blues, jazz-rock fusion, and the occasional funk, Eckemoff’s albums have ranged far and wide while continuing to deal in high concepts. Glass Song (2013), the first of her albums to team Andersen and Erskine (who surprisingly had never previously played together), is an environmental treat boasting songs about rain, melting ice and clouds.
Lions (2015), featuring Andersen and drummer Billy Hart, captures life in the savanna with songs about those glorious animals and their cubs as well as migrating birds and tropical rains.
“As my imagination grew wilder, I started to fantasize about escaping the human world and turning into a lioness myself,” she says. “My fantasies were so vivid at times that even now I have my doubts that the story … was just a figment of my imagination.”
For Desert, Eckemoff read extensively about the subject, including several books about Bedouins. “I wanted to know what kind of people they are,” she says. “How is it that they’ve managed to change with the times, finding freedom in such harsh conditions. I wanted to capture the true soul of Bedouins.
“I may never have been to the Arabian Desert, but maybe I have a genetic memory of it,” she adds, relating to the fact that she has some Persian blood in her.
In envisioning the recording of Desert, she says, she entertained the notion of going to Dubai and setting up shop in the desert. “I like to dream big,” she says. “But it was too expensive to realize that kind of vision.
“I thought, who in America would be the best fit for this project? I thought of Paul and his oboe, on which he is so expressive, and decided this is the sound I wanted. Peter helped me connect with Paul, who really is the reason for this group.
“As for Arild and Peter, they had just the right voices for my melodies and compositions. I feel like when I have these guys around, I can do anything.”
As indicated by the presence on her albums of so many distinguished players—her 2014 gem, A Touch of Radiance, dedicated to no less a force than happiness, features Mark Turner, Joe Locke, George Mraz, and Billy Hart and she also has recorded with Chris Potter, Mark Feldman, and Jon Christensen—more and more musicians are feeling the same way about working with one of Russia’s great gifts to America. As Erskine put it after the Desert recording session, “Yelena brings out the best in all of us.”
Press Release by Lloyd Sachs, March 2018
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) CHRIS POTTER(tenor & soprano saxophones, flute, bass clarinet) ADAM ROGERS (elec. guitar) DREW GRESS (double bass) GERALD CLEAVER (drums)
August 4, 2017
A self-described ‘old fashioned romantic,’ Moscow-born pianist-composer Yelena Eckemoff once again demonstrates uncommon lyricism and a gift for melody on In the Shadow of a Cloud, her 11th recording since transitioning from the classical world to jazz back in 2010 with the release of Cold Sun (with bassist Mads Vinding and drummer Peter Erskine) on her own L&H Production label. With a pristine touch and refined sense of form, Eckemoff organically blends classical elements with jazz improvisation in her evocative pieces that strike a delicate balance between being through-composed and full of open-ended exploration. She is joined on this compelling 2-CD set by a stellar crew of New Yorkers in Chris Potter on multiple reeds and flute, Adam Rogers on guitar, Drew Gress on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums, all playing together for the first time.
Through single-minded conviction and perseverance as an independent label owner, Eckemoff has managed to release more than an album per year since 2010 (she had released more than a dozen classical albums prior to that date), allowing her to build up a wholly unique catalog while developing her singular voice as player-composer-arranger. “I always try to find musicians who I have affinity with,” says the gifted pianist-composer who has employed such jazz heavyweights as George Mraz, Arild Andersen, Peter Erskine, Billy Hart, Mark Turner, Joe Locke, Ben Street and Mark Feldman on past recordings. “I know what these musicians can do, I know their strong sides, and I give them an opportunity to shine, to express themselves the best way they can.”
Yelena pushes the envelope a bit further with her stellar crew on In the Shadow of a Cloud, her most upbeat and accomplished recording to date. Once again, Yelena wears many hats on this project by not only composing and arranging all the music, recruiting the band and producing the music for her own independent label, but also providing the evocative painting that graces the cover and the series of poems that accompany each track in the 28-page booklet. “I’m not professional painter and I’m not a poet,” she says, “but I think it’s helpful for understanding the music. To me, it gives much more meaning to write about the tracks and do the artwork myself. I feel like if it’s my project, it’s like my baby. So I want to be responsible for everything. I want to not only deliver the baby but also educate him and teach him and dress him.”
Beyond the luxurious packaging, the highly affecting music on In the Shadow of a Cloud is imbued with remarkable band interplay and daring improvisations from the jazz heavyweights who serve as her sideman on this ambitious 2-CD set. And they each had high praise for Yelena in working with her on this tightly-knit project.
Chris Potter: “It’s very interesting the way that Yelena writes and thinks about music, the way she would describe every song before we did it. She clearly has a strong visual or memory sense that’s associated with everything. And you can feel that in the way she writes. The music itself awakens a feeling, and that seems to be the center of where she is approaching music from, which I like a lot.”
Drew Gress: “I really dig playing Yelena’s music because she is like no one else; she is doing her own thing. There are elements of through-composed in her music and she has a really interesting take on how linear shapes are combined to create harmony. It’s kind of unpredictable and personal, and I really enjoyed being part of her music.”
Adam Rogers: “Yelena’s music is quite beautiful and really unique. It’s different from a normal jazz record because it’s more through-composed. But I wouldn’t describe it as being a ‘classical-jazz’ hybrid record, because it sounds more like she’s assimilated these influences and is expressing them in an already very processed way; processed in a really good way. Yelena has a beautiful piano sound and the music was very playable and really lovely. It’s been a great experience to work with her on this project.”
Gerald Cleaver: “The session went extremely well. Yelena has some very idiosyncratic music, very evocative, and it was a real pleasure to play it, especially with her and these other fine musicians. Yelena gives a lot of freedom regarding what I can play. But that gives me a feeling that I want to come up with very specific types of sound through her pieces, so it gives maybe a little more order; not strictness, but a certain kind of cohesion from sound to sound.”
Like her last two concept albums — 2016’s Leaving Everything Behind (about emigrating from her native Russia in 1991) and 2017’s Bloom Tall Phlox (about how certain smells from her childhood in Russia still trigger magical memories) — In the Shadow of a Cloud is another personal statement from the prolific composer. “Making music personal is probably more important for me than anything else because I guess it’s just the way I was born. I have big desire to express myself and things with music.”
Whether it’s her memories of the sound of grasshoppers in a country field, the massive iron railroad bridge with wooden walkways near her home, her grandpa’s motorboat, the sensation of swinging in a hammock with her mother or the fragrance of wild lilies mixed with the smells of warm asphalt and potatoes and onions frying on kerosene burners, Eckemoff’s In the Shadow of a Cloud stands as an evocative soundtrack for the life she left behind in Russia when she and her husband emigrated to North Carolina in 1991. “All of those places and people are lost for me,” she says. “So I write about them, even in this short way. I want a longer life for them than just in my memory.”
The title track, which opens CD 1, is moody and atmospheric in a quintessential ECM-ish sense, though it contains elements of polyphony between the instruments that draws on Eckemoff’s classical background. Potter delivers a powerful tenor solo here that culminates in some urgent free blowing in the rubato section. The saxophonist also shines on the driving “Saratovsky Bridge” and more introspective “Fishing Village,” both underscored by Cleaver’s intuitive and interactive pulse on the kit. Potter delivers a rare turn on flute on the dreamy 5/4 “Waters of Tsna River,” which also features brilliant, cascading solos by Rogers and Yelena herself.
The gentle “Acorn Figurines,” underscored by Cleaver’s delicate brushwork, is a kind of jazz sonata for quartet showcasing Rogers’ signature legato flow on the fretboard. Gress also turns in an arresting arco solo on this unique hybrid number. Guitarist Rogers also shines on the surging “On the Motorboat,” which shifts into the rubato zone midway through, resulting in some of the most provocative and free-wheeling moments of the session from all the participants. CD 1 closes with the lazy meditation “Hammock Stories,” which sets the perfect tone for a hot summer day in the backyard.
CD 2 opens with jaunty quartet swinger “Picnic in the Oaks,” which has Rogers, Eckemoff, Gress and Cleaver all contributing potent solos. Potter returns on soprano sax for the engaging “Waltz of the Yellow Petals,” which is fueled by Cleaver’s loosely swinging approach to the kit and also features another remarkably fluid solo from Rogers. Potter’s soprano solo here is outstanding, full of animated expression and surprises along the way, while Yelena engages in some spirited exchanges with him and Rogers near the end of the piece.
Another quartet number, “Trail Along the River,” has a distinctly through-composed quality, though Eckemoff and Rogers break loose for some sparkling solos within the form. Potter returns on soprano sax on the moody “Lament,” then adds a new color to the proceedings with his potent bass clarinet work on the driving “Vision of a Hunt.” The melancholy quartet ballad “The Fog” showcases Potter’s soaring soprano sax alongside Yelena on piano, Gress on bass and Cleaver on drums. CD 2 closes with the very pleasant “Tambov Streets on a Summer Night.”
While some of her past works, like Leaving Everything Behind and Blooming Tall Phlox are largely nostalgic, the story of In the Shadow of a Cloud ends with an optimistic outlook at the present and future. As Eckemoff explains, “In the last piece, ‘Tambov Streets on a Summer Night,’ I turn down the opportunity to re-live my past as a shadow, invisible to all, and instead choose the present: Even though my heart aches with love/For the people and places of past days/I don’t belong in those times anymore./My time is in the present/Where I have many tasks unfinished, where my life’s work awaits me./No matter that the road before me grows shorter, I am eager to see what the future holds in store for me.
Born in Moscow, Russia, Yelena began playing piano by ear at age four and later took lessons from her mother Olga, who was a professional pianist and teacher. At age seven, she attended Gnessins Musical Academy, a school for gifted children, and later studied classical piano at Moscow State Conservatory. After graduating, she taught piano in Moscow while giving solo concerts and composing music for various instruments. “I did study jazz and other styles when I was teenager and then when I was in my early 20s I went to the jazz studio, which was an unofficial institution organized by jazz enthusiasts in Moscow. It was very helpful. We studied the jazz tradition and learned all of those evergreens by all of those traditional jazz players —Joe Pass, Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner and, of course, Bill Evans. But I also studied other styles, like pop music, Beatles, rock and all that because I thought I need to understand everything. I was influenced by all I learned and that gave me some advantages in my language as a composer.”
With thoughtful contributions from a cast of jazz heavyweights, Yelena applies that expansive language to her ambitious 2-CD set, In the Shadow of a Cloud.
Press Release by Bill Milkowski, May 25, 2017
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) VERNERI POHJOLA (trumpet & flugelhorn) PANU SAVOLAINEN (vibraphon) ANTTI LOTJONEN (double bass) OLAVI LOUHIVUORI (drums & percussion)
January 20, 2017
Pianist Yelena Eckemoff Continues Her Inimitable Exploration of Visual Arts, Poetry and Classically-Informed Jazz on Blooming Tall Phlox, For the First Time Featuring an All-Finnish Lineup of Young Rising Stars.
It’s not uncommon to read about musicians – especially those who deal solely in instrumental music – struggling to come up with titles for their compositions and albums; while oftentimes composing music with emotional intent, their music rarely possesses any specific meaning or inspiration. For Yelena Eckemoff, this has rarely been the case. The Russian-born pianist/composer’s release of 2016, Leaving Everything Behind, was based on the considerable emotional impact of emigrating from her country of origin, over two decades ago – and, until she and her husband were settled in North Carolina, where they still reside, her children as well.
Not all of Eckemoff’s albums are as eminently plaintive as Leaving Behind, but her most recent recordings, in particular, have not only represented musical statements but visual ones as well, with the pianist not only contributing the artwork that graces her album covers, but throughout her CD booklets. Even more recently, with the release of albums like 2015’s Lions, Eckemoff has also begun to write poetry that, alongside her artwork, creates an even more emotional experience when listening to her music.
Blooming Tall Phlox is Eckemoff’s tenth album since shifting gears from the classical music of her early career and a mid-career break to raise her children into a more firmly and decidedly jazz focus with the 2010 release of Cold Sun. Augmented by her compelling artwork and poetry, Eckemoff now adds the impact of human senses to her music…in the case of Blooming Tall Phlox, that of smell. Increasingly imbued by her distinctive, recognizable approach to melody, song titles like “Apples Laid Out on the Floor,” “Wildflower Meadows” and “Old Fashioned Bread Store” not only palpably evoke these alluring odors, but provide both vivid and immediate imagery and inspiration for this two-CD, 98-minute set of fifteen new compositions, divided into two parts: Summer Smells and Winter Smells.
“I had the idea of writing music about smell for some time before I met with [drummer] Olavi [Louhivuori] in Finland,” Eckemoff says. “The idea came into focus when I saw how much Finland reminded me of Russia; it became obvious to me that it would be the best place to record an album about smells. I brought fifteen songs to the session, already named and designed to express certain smells. Writing the poetry came later, even though I nurtured my ideas along with the music. Then I had to select a title for the album, which was not easy. But as I was writing my poems, it became clear that there is one smell that triggers my childhood memories: the smell of the phlox. So I decided to paint a picture of myself in my grandparent’s garden, sniffing the phlox, based on a black and white photograph from the time.”
“When I saw that there was too much music to fit on one disc, I considered the preexisting names of the songs, each describing a memory triggered by a certain smell,” Eckemoff continues. “As a result, there was a story about my summer and winter school breaks that I always spent at my grandparents’ town, making the division of the album into summer and winter smells quite natural.”
Creating increasingly multi-disciplinary music is not Eckemoff’s only change with Blooming Tall Phlox. Following a string of recordings with internationally renowned Norwegian musicians like Arild Andersen, Tore Brunborg, Jon Christensen and Mats Eilertsen, and A-list Americans including Peter Erskine, Billy Hart, Mark Turner, Joe Locke and Mark Feldman, Eckemoff recruited some of Finland’s best young, up-and-coming players for Blooming Tall Phlox. In addition to trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, already garnering international attention for his series of recordings for Germany’s ACT label, and Olavi Louhivuori, whose contributions to albums on the heralded ECM label with artists including Tomasz Stanko and Mats Eilertsen have, since 2009, also placed the drummer/percussionist on the global map, Eckemoff enlisted vibraphonist Panu Savolainen and double bassist Antti Lötjönen – two rising stars in their own country, and both already showing the promise of even broader recognition.
“In 2012, after recording in Copenhagen, I traveled across the Nordic countries,” Eckemoff explains. “In Finland, I met with drummer Olavi Louhivuori, who I knew from his work with Mats Eilertsen and Tomasz Stanko. I felt a very good vibe as we sat and chatted at Cafe Angel in Helsinki, and on the spur of the moment I decided that I should arrange a recording session in Finland the following year. Olavi recommended his friends Verneri and Antti – they’ve played a lot together – and also Panu Savolainen, a hot rising star vibraphonist, since I expressed an interest in adding that instrument to the project – my first experience working with vibes and only my second with a trumpeter.
“Taking advantage of being in Finland for a few days, I looked at a few studios, and I fell in love with the privately owned and operated Petrax studio in Holola, which was located in a very rural area on an active farm. Musicians had to stay on the premises in the adjacent apartments during the recording session; the owner’s wife even cooked fabulous dinners and provided all kind of snacks. But the biggest attraction for me was the vibe I got from its spacious studio and grand piano, an old Bechstein, that sounded big and felt very different, to the point that it was quite a challenge to make friends with the instrument; but it was an interesting task for me to unveil its character.”
Certainly the sound of Blooming Tall Phlox is consistent with the high sonic standards established by Eckemoff on her prior recordings – the result, no doubt, of studio engineer Julius Mauranen’s keen ear…and that of renowned American engineer Rich Breen (Oregon, Yellowjackets, Charlie Haden), who mixed and mastered the recording. But more important is how a group of musicians with whom Eckemoff had not previously engaged impacted the session. “In preparation for the session (almost a year), I had a chance to get acquainted with the work of my Finnish band members, learning how they sounded and where their strengths lay,” Eckemoff recalls, “composing with them in mind. Verneri has a very unique sound and his own way of playing, which I think is his greatest asset. Antti is very charismatic and a super team player; and all three of them – Verneri, Antti and Olavi – played very tightly together and understood each other’s every whim. Panu had not played with them before, but he felt right at home…remarkable, especially considering that he was in his early twenties at that point. The youngest on our team, he already possessed amazing technique as a vibraphonist, was a talented improviser, a great sight reader, and at ease with any given task.
“I have to say,” Eckemoff continues, “that it was a great pleasure to lead these fabulous young players during our three-day encounter in a studio. They approached every song with zest and took pleasure in interpreting my music material. I think you can tell that we all enjoyed making music together by the aura that surrounds this record.”
An aura that becomes immediately evident from the first notes of the title track, which opens Blooming Tall Phlox’s first disc. Eckemoff’s greatest strength, beyond a technical acumen first developed in her classical years, to accomplish anything to which she sets her mind, may be composition and arrangement, but she’s always possessed a particular gift in finding and surrounding herself with the right players, capable of intuitive spontaneity – interpreting her detailed arrangements both individually and collectively, and contributing solos of tremendous imagination and virtuosity. But with Blooming Tall Phlox – and in collaboration with a group of musicians largely lesser-known than those with whom she’s worked in the past, but possessed of a chemistry that comes from much time spent working together, in the case of Pohjola, Louhivuori and Lötjönen – Eckemoff has managed to once again raise her game with this diverse yet unified program.
And Eckemoff’s range is broad, as a pianist, composer and arranger. Her music can seamlessly move between ethereal abstractions and arpeggio-driven thematic constructs; play liberally with time or swing with surprising fervor; juxtapose gentle balladry, defined by beautifully unfolding series of motifs, with greater angularity and extemporaneous freedom; positively sing with mellifluous lyricism or challenge preconception with knotty idiosyncrasies while, bolstered by an organic meshing of frenetic grooves and in-the-moment interaction, providing contexts for expressive improvisational élan from Eckemoff and her exceptional quintet, the pianist’s firm yet plaint touch successfully unveiling, indeed, the character of her Bechstein. With the exception of a small handful of through-composed material, most of Blooming Tall Phlox’s fifteen compositions demonstrate a remarkable confluence of form and freedom, couched within the context of some of Eckemoff’s most challenging yet appealing charts to date. And yet, despite the openness, the immediacy and unpredictability that pervades much of Blooming Tall Phlox, there’s no shortage of affecting lyricism, whether it’s the thematically rich “Wildflower Meadows” or temporally fluid tone poem “Sleeping in the Tent,” where Eckemoff’s scripted lines provide expansive improvisational opportunities.
It didn’t begin that way. “‘Sleeping in the Tent’ began as a long, through-composed piece,” Eckemoff recalls. “I was a bit uneasy when we approached this one at the recording and opted to do it in sections. The guys were sight-reading my written material, and we recorded it in several sections. Then, on the last day, we decided to try playing the whole thing from top to bottom to see what would happen, and it was the most fun we had playing together. We pretty much stayed true to the composed material, but since everyone had already learned it, we followed each other, staying together even when somebody was veering off and breaking into improvised phrases. Verneri then decided to overdub the whole piece with a muted trumpet. The song came out wild and creepy…exactly the way I wanted it to be, and this was probably the most creative playing of the session. I used that take exactly the way it came out, and to my ears it was perfect.”
Blooming Tall Phlox also demonstrates, between Eckemoff’s impeccable playing and interaction with her superb bandmates, that her early classical training/experience may still be a part of her DNA, but what she is doing now is irrefutably jazz. Playfully imbued with vitality, energy, creativity and, perhaps most importantly, an unrelenting sound of surprise that reveals more with each and every listen, Blooming Tall Phlox proves that it is possible to reinvent oneself. Over six years and ten recordings, Eckemoff has evolved into a deeply creative jazz artist: not just a pianist capable of engaging with some of the finest jazz musicians on the planet, but a composer/arranger who can surprise them with unexpected and enigmatic music that drives them to even further levels of excellence. It’s a potent combination that, with Blooming Tall Phlox , not only raises her own already high bar, but those of Pohjola, Savolainen, Lötjönen and Louhivuori as well.
“They all were fearless yet easy-going band mates,” Eckemoff enthuses, “with a lot of creative energy and eager attitude. There was nothing they would not dare do, and at the same time they were very respectful of my written music and sensitive to my directions and lead.”
Blooming Tall Phlox is both a consistent fit within Eckemoff’s overall discography and a move into areas previously unexplored for a pianist who, rather than constantly thinking about where she is now, is always (and, at this moment, already) thinking ahead. She already has her next album in the can and, if the exceptional Blooming Tall Phlox is any indication, it will no doubt continue the upward trajectory that this daring pianist/composer has been on since she first appeared in the jazz world just six short years ago, garnering increased attention from publications ranging from Downbeat to Jazztimes and to Jazzwise and Jazzthing.
Press Release by John Kelman.
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) MARK FELDMAN (violin) BEN STREET (double bass) BILLY HART (drums)
May 13, 2016
Yelena Eckemoff, the prolific and enthralling (Downbeat) pianist and composer, has earned plaudits for her recent CDs , Everblue, Lions, A Touch of Radiance, Glass Song and more. She has made high-level original music with sidemen on the order of Peter Erskine, Arild Andersen, Jon Christensen, George Mraz, and Mark Turner. With her new release Leaving Everything Behind, Yelena deepens her multifaceted body of work by drawing on older original material, a few pieces dating as far back as the 1980s. To emphasize my concept behind this album, I needed to go back to my roots, says the pianist. I wanted to draw on music I composed when I knew very little if anything at all about the modern jazz field.
These compositions, in various ways, recall for Eckemoff deeply personal events and contemplations. Yet in reinventing her own works so thoroughly and imaginatively, Eckemoff looks back to look forward, approaching her older material from the heights of her acquired skills as a jazz pianist and band leader. Inhabiting that rarefied area between modern classical chamber music and progressive jazz, Eckemoff once again enlists legendary drummer Billy Hart, whose expressive capacities and timbral choices give the music an unstinting freshness. Completing the lineup is sought-after bassist Ben Street (Danilo Pérez, David Virelles, Billy Hart Quartet) and seasoned violinist and improviser Mark Feldman (John Abercrombie, Sylvie Courvoisier, Uri Caine).
Eckemoff confronts these memories and others in a series of poems that accompany each of the tracks on Leaving Everything Behind (a practice she began on Glass Song from 2012). The cover art and all interior drawings are also Eckemoff s. In fact the front cover artwork dates back to the time when she composed the music. I am a professional musician, and painting and poetry for me has always been just a hobby. But I believe that including my own poetry and paintings into the CD package gives people an opportunity to connect with my music on a deeper, more personal level. Also, I think it s important in the age of streaming to offer people a comprehensive physical object, a fuller experience of art.
There is a strong through-composed element in Eckemoff s music, yet her melding of complex written material with a flowing, elastic sense of rhythm is what gives her efforts, Leaving Everything Behind included, an improvisational and even playful feeling. Of the eleven pieces, Mushroom Rain, Leaving Everything Behind and Hope Lives Eternal were composed when Eckemoff was in her early 20s. Ocean of Pines, an intricate piece with waltz, 4/4 and rubato sections and a haunting, elusive harmonic character, was composed in 2005, while six remaining pieces stem from a fruitful period in 2008.
The magnificent texture of the quartet, the transparent beauty of these four unique instrumental voices, is immediately apparent on Prologue, which leads to the darker, more rhythmically emphatic Rising From Within. Other highlights include the contrapuntal dancing of Eckemoff and Feldman on Spots of Light, the Billy Hart-driven groove of Love Train (not to be confused with the O Jays hit), the lilting quasi-shuffle feel and poignant lyricism of Tears of Tenderness and the stately 3/4 pulse and soaring Feldman solo that enlivens A Date in Paradise.
Press Release by David Adler.
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) TORE BRUNBORG (tenor & soprano saxophones) ARILD ANDERSEN (double bass) JON CHRISTENSEN (drums)
August 21, 2015
When pianist Yelena Eckemoff released Cold Sun (L & H Production, 2010) – a trio date with drumming legend Peter Erskine and Danish bass whiz Mads Vinding – the jazz world was introduced to a startlingly fresh voice destined for great things. Over the course of the six albums that followed, Eckemoff lived up to that promise, delivering organically crafted music reflective of her classical background, fascination with the natural world, poetic soul, communicative spirit, and overall open-mindedness. Now, Eckemoff is poised to make even more waves with the spellbinding Everblue, her third in-studio encounter with Norwegian bass icon Arild Andersen and her first musical meeting with two other Norwegians of note – drummer Jon Christensen and saxophonist Tore Brunborg.
Those familiar with the background of Eckemoff’s musical partners will likely be aware of their shared history, as Andersen and Christensen were both key players in Jan Garbarek’s groundbreaking musical odysseys in the early ’70s and all three men were involved in the band called Masqualero. But none of that has to do with Eckemoff’s motives for joining forces with this Norwegian dream team. Instead, she simply notes that she chose to work with these musicians because they “would be the best match to interpret the ideas for theEverblue project.”
The musical affinity that exists between Eckemoff and Andersen is already abundantly clear, having been demonstrated on two beautifully rendered trio outings-Glass Song (L & H Production, 2013), with Peter Erskine on drums, and Lions (L & H Production, 2015), with Billy Hart on drums. On Everblue, their rapport is deepened and broadened, as both players seem to resonate sympathetically throughout. While Eckemoff has worked with a number of fine bassists in the past, including Vinding and George Mraz, her relationship with Andersen helps to take her work to another level; it’s a relationship that, she notes, plays out like “an interactive conversation.”
In summing up her reasoning for choosing to bring Christensen and Brunborg into her musical orbit onEverblue, Eckemoff cites both players’ elemental qualities: she likens Christensen to “an ocean” and she views Brunborg as “the voice of nature: animals, birds, winds, and ghosts.” When merged with her own “wondering and contemplative spirit” and Andersen’s deeply resonating bass work-“a bridge between all of us,” according to the architect herself-the results are mesmerizing.
With Everblue, Eckemoff doesn’t simply present a set of tunes: she presents an overarching musical concept that guides this voyage. “Part of our human consciousness constantly searches and yearns for the divine, unspeakably beautiful, eternal,” she notes. “In my world, I call this place Everblue.” It’s a concept and a world that’s plainly laid out in her poetry and music, as everything is drawn around beaches and oceans. And it’s a concept within that concept-the search for beauty-that informs this journey of faith and discovery.
From the first reflective notes of the title track, it’s clear that the value of this music is in the travel. As that number unfolds, there’s prayerful saxophone work to observe, glistening sounds to admire, and rustling percussion to behold. Thoughts of “cool sapphire light,” “azure skies,” and a “cobalt ocean”-all mentioned in the “Everblue” poem-come through clearly in the music. With “All Things, Seen And Unseen,” Eckemoff establishes a firm presence, providing counterpoint and communing with the musical spirits and her band mates. Here, Christensen manages to position his cymbal work against the beat and Andersen manages to achieve an intriguing duality that carries across the album: he comes off as a commanding force while also managing to exist as a wholly malleable musical entity.
Eckemoff brings a touch of minimalism into the picture with her rolling triplets on “Waves & Shells,” a number that can be said to be “moving” in more ways than one. Some call-and-response interaction bookends the piece, yet it’s not central to the story. More important are Christensen’s mid-track percussive serenade and Andersen’s thoughts of the moment. From there, it’s off to “Skyline,” a number that ebbs and flows in organic fashion as musical voices gently lap against one another and starry-eyed piano charms and disarms, and “Sea-Breeze,” a world built with broken eighth-note lines, cymbal gestures delivered in the nooks between beats, bright thoughts, and strong solo work from Eckemoff and Andersen.
“Prism” and “Man,” arriving next in the running order, both come from the musically fertile mind of Arild Andersen. By including these pieces, Eckemoff makes a slight departure from her previous releases: she exhibits a high level of trust, as this marks the first time that she’s included somebody else’s work on one of her jazz albums. That trust pays off handsomely in this case. Both pieces, while originally written for other settings, manage to sonically embody the philosophy behind this album. “Prism” was originally recorded onThe Triangle (ECM, 2004)-a trio outing that found Andersen working with pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and drummer John Marshall. Here, with Christensen and Brunborg, Andersen notes, “it felt natural to do the song looser and more free in tempo.” This change in direction gives the piece a wholly different character, as Eckemoff and company deliver a dose of abstract realism, with lightly rippled gestures, peaceful moments of clarity, and highly pronounced colors coming to the surface. “Man,” Andersen states, “was written for a short film some years back and I had never recorded it before.” The bassist admits that it never struck him as being a jazz vehicle, but this band manages to shape it as such. Pockets of energy seem to magically emerge and then recede into the distance on this fascinating number.
The remaining tracks, as with the aforementioned material, all highlight the simpatico sensibilities of these players and their individual talents. “Abyss” brings the Eckemoff-Andersen relationship into sharp focus; “Ghost of The Dunes” penetrates, with Eckemoff’s two-handed angular work and a strong sense of connectivity between Brunborg and Andersen on display; and “Blue Lamp” is a patient and elegant sendoff, complete with firm yet pliant gestures. In most of those cases, and on nearly every track on the album, Eckemoff manages to present melodically lucid thoughts bathed in ethereal waters.
Press Release by David Adler.
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) ARILD ANDERSEN (double bass) BILLY HART (drums)
March 2, 2015
Pianist/composer Pianist Yelena Eckemoff Returns with Lions, Her Most Ambitious Marriage of Music and Narrative Yet.
For Yelena Eckemoff, finding the nexus where training and an early successful career in the classical sphere meet with the Moscow-born, North Carolina-resident pianist/composer’s more recent predilection for jazz and improvised music has been a wholly natural pursuit. A meeting place where the whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts, with Lions – her eighth jazz album in nine years – Eckemoff once again raises the bar on a very personal approach to bringing detailed composition and freewheeling extemporization together with the idea of music as real narrative.
Unlike many musicians, who title compositions out of necessity – more afterthought than intimately tied to the music – Eckemoff has long striven to make albums with underlying concepts – a premise particularly evident with her last recording, 2014’s A Touch of Radiance, and now, to even greater effect, with Lions. Lions’ releasemay follow A Touch of Radiance, but chronologically it was recorded first – more than a year before, in fact – making it Eckemoff’s first to use what she calls “three-arts-crossing,” where, in addition to the music, she contributes both poetry and cover art.
“The 14-part Lions poem, where I wrote about a woman in a lioness’ body (words corresponding to the double-disc’s 14 musical tracks and printed in the liner notes) was so personal that I felt like taking another step toward an even more personal approach by using my own painting for the CD cover,” Eckemoff explains.
“For some musicians, music is just music,” she continues. “The names of the songs are expendable and what the music expresses is irrelevant – as long as it sounds good. For me, the music has always been nothing less than captivating storytelling and a way to express my feelings and thoughts, as well as the world around me.”
Still, the genesis of Lions is an unusual tale worth telling. Eckemoff had already collaborated, on 2013’s Glass Song, with Arild Andersen – the virtuosic double bassist who, along with four other Scandinavians brought to international attention by ECM Records’ Manfred Eicher in the early 1970s, created a paradigm shift in how jazz was viewed by incorporating a completely different cultural touchstone into a music then largely dominated by the American tradition.
“After the recording session for Glass Song, Arild told me that he was waiting for a special bass that was being made for him in France, with a carved lion’s head on its neck,” Eckemoff recalls. “It stirred my imagination, and I came up with an idea to assemble a trio of ‘lions’ for my next recording project with Arild, which we had decided to do in New York the following year. As I was trying to think who would be another ‘lion’ to join Arild and I in a recording studio, the choice was obvious to both of us: there could be no better match than Billy Hart! I then approached Billy, asking him to join Arild and I for the trio project, and he was very much interested. Billy and Arild have never worked together before, and both were quite excited at the prospect.
“Inspired with the idea of putting together a suite of songs not only performed by ‘lions,’ but also about lions,” Eckemoff continues, “I began writing music which would describe the many aspects of lions’ lives, starting with a general idea (‘Lions’); going into details about their habitat (‘Night in Savanna,’ ‘Stars Bathing in Shallow Waters’); and their routines (‘Pursuit,’ ‘Young at Play,’ ‘Simple Pleasures,’ ‘Instinct,’ ‘Surviving the Famine,’ ‘Joining the Pride’). As my imagination grew wilder, I started to fantasize about escaping the human world and turning into a lioness myself. My fantasies were so vivid at times that even now I have my doubts that the story of getting transported to the African savanna on the wings of migrating birds, finding myself in a lioness’ body, and then living in a lion’s pride was just a figment of my imagination…or was it for real? I hope whosoever listens to the music and reads the story might find out for him or herself.”
It’s hard not to be swept away by Eckemoff’s vision of African vistas and wildlife from a lioness’ viewpoint. Eckemoff’s music finds compelling middle ground between through composition and the loose interpretative interaction that any trio bolstered by Andersen and Hart is bound to possess. The three musicians traverse considerable territory, from ethereal atmospherics both sun-charred and moonlit indigo and more grounded explorations of groove, to cinematic expanses that evoke imagery reflective of Eckemoff’s experience – the soundtrack to the most personal of imaginary films. And whether it’s Eckemoff’s impeccable virtuosity and penchant for the impressionistic, Andersen’s lithe muscularity and irresistibly singing tone, or Hart’s ability to suggest time with the broadest use of color and texture, Lions is an album that continues to surprise long after it’s been spun for the first time.
While there’s something to be said for the chemistry of a longstanding group, there’s also no doubt that a rare kind of energy can imbue first encounters, especially where, rather than writing relatively spare sketches that are grist for more open-ended improvisation, Eckemoff provides her partners with detailed compositions filled with challenging yet somehow accessible structural constructs.
“To help prepare for the recording, I always supply my musicians with comprehensive lead sheets and audio demos of the songs to be recorded,” Eckemoff explains. “After Billy listened to my piano demos, he asked how much of what he heard I was going to play at the recording. My sincere answer was that I would play pretty much everything he heard. Sensing that he was very amused, I felt apologetic, saying that due to my classical music background I like to write a lot, leaving only relatively small portions for improvisation. To my surprise, he was quite excited about my written-through approach, saying that besides that he liked the music very much – that my way of music-making in jazz is prophetic, and that this is a new direction about which he is very fascinated.”
Of course, how musicians prepare for a session is as different as their own approaches to playing. “Arild prefers to study my music way in advance, because he finds it quite structural, with some eccentric chord changes – way too complicated to be played on the spot,” says Eckemoff.
But Andersen – who was teamed with another veteran drummer, Peter Erskine, on Glass Song – reveals just how differently two musicians can approach the music. “Peter wanted to have all the music that Yelena had written down for the piano, and was more or less reading the piano parts during the recording,” the bassist recalls. “Billy hardly looked at it. Yelena’s music is pretty challenging in terms of chord progressions and bar structures, so I had to watch out all the time and keep concentrating. She is more like playing with a classical pianist. She writes down most of what she plays in the session beforehand, whereas I prefer to have as little as possible written down and leave everything up to improvisation. It’s a strange combination, but there was still a lot of space to play in Yelena’s music, and with a loose rhythm section it worked well.”
And work well it does. Eckemoff describes the music (and how her trio mates interpret it) best: “In ‘Migrating Birds,’ Billy’s brushes sound like fluttering of the birds’ wings, and we all soar up in the sky, filled with a nostalgic desire to reach distant shores in our attempt to escape our human world. In ‘Pursuit,’ we – now lions – desperately try to catch our prey, infatuated with the hunting spree. In ‘Night in Savanna,’ Billy imitates the creepy sounds of African night life, including passing of rattlesnakes. In ‘Young at Play,’ we’re associated with energetic and clumsy cubs that play hard but suddenly fall asleep in the middle of the game. The odd meters of ‘Sphinx’ serves as a laboratory for the philosophic exploration of life’s dramatic choices.
“‘Instinct,’ whose melody of love is probably one of the most heartfelt tunes I’ve ever created, pictures a shameless mating ground for innocent lions, not hemmed in by the confines of human society,” Eckemoff continues. ‘Simple Pleasures’ returns us to the basic things that all living creatures enjoy; to get into the carefree mood of total satisfaction, we lazily start the song off with an on-the-spot free intro. Some random roars and relaxing stretches of ‘Lions Blues’ feel as cozy as any blues; despite the canonic blues formula, spiked chords shift down and up in half-steps. In ‘Surviving the Famine’ we are fatigued from hunger, and Billy’s marching pattern expresses the emptiness of our stomachs while Arild’s frantic phrases are like desperate attempts to find food. There is a triumphant spirit of winning the battle in ‘Joining the Pride,’ while the joyous ‘Ode to Strength’ sums up the courage and nobility of lions’ lives and return us virtual lions to our human world – at least, for the most part,” Eckemoff concludes, chuckling.
“A week after the Lions recording session, we had the privilege of performing seven pieces from the album at New York City’s Birdland Jazz Club,” enthuses Eckemoff. “It was the first time Arild and I ever took the stage at this famed club, and it was quite thrilling to present this music in a live show and receive a warm and enthusiastic reception.”
With the release of Lions, Yelena Eckemoff continues to make significant strides in her goal of gaining acceptance in the jazz world on her own terms. And for those as enthralled by the pure magic of Lions as Eckemoff, Andersen and Hart clearly were, the good news is there’s more to come.
Exciting news for the pianist, but also for fans and critics alike who have become increasingly captivated by Yelena Eckemoff’s most personal, narrative approach to chamber-informed music-making. With an imagination as free as that of the majestic animals to whom she aspires, Lions is yet another leap forward in the career of an artist whose name may still be relatively new to the jazz world, but whose reputation is gaining ground with each successive release.
Press Release by John Kelman.
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) MARK TURNER (tenor saxophone) JOE LOCKE (vibraphone) GEORGE MRAZ (double bass) BILLY HART (drums)
August 12, 2014
Pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff defines radiance as “a state of happiness or confidence when everything around you is shining.” On her latest album, A Touch of Radiance, she explores that idea from 10 different perspectives, drawing rich inspiration from memories, emotions, and dreams, and the inner world where all three intersect.
In addition to the 10 musical expressions of radiance, Eckemoff also examines the concept in other media; she painted the vivid sunset on the album cover and wrote 10 short poems to expand on each piece, all of which are included in the album’s liner notes. A Touch of Radiance also expands her horizons instrumentally, marking the first time that the classically-trained pianist has recorded with more than a trio. She’s assembled a stunning – yes, even radiant – band for the occasion, featuring saxophonist Mark Turner, vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Billy Hart.
“I was ready to move on,” Eckemoff says. “My goals didn’t change: I wanted to express in music what I feel and what I experience. But utilizing more instruments gives your music a wider angle.”
These four gifted artists respond gorgeously to Eckemoff’s music, wringing bold colors and deep feeling from pieces that are both airy and intricate. “The musicians helped me to paint my musical picture,” Eckemoff says. “What made the project a success is that in addition to improvising brilliantly, all the musicians were extremely respectful to my written structures, tunes and melodic lines. The combination of written and improvised music as well as totally loose group improvisations has been my chosen musical language. With each new recording I am more comfortable with this language.”
Hart responded enthusiastically to Eckemoff’s extra-musical inspirations, the pianist says. He transformed his approach to evoke the sound of walking on cobblestones, the fluttering of butterfly wings, or the crackling of a wood stove. In fact, Eckemoff recalls, “On the song ‘Affection’ Billy asked me if I wanted him to be a little puppy or a big dog.”
Eckemoff’s blend of jazz freedom and classical structure pushed even such a skilled and experienced group of musicians to stretch their limits. “She has her own thing – it is not a copy of another person’s music like you run into almost all the time,” says Mraz. “It was a challenge to flesh out these compositions of Yelena’s,” Locke feels, “and I thank her for that challenge.”
>Aside from the opening track, “Inspiration,” which sets the album’s tone through its air of dream-like mystery, the pieces on A Touch of Radiance and their accompanying poems move chronologically through Eckemoff’s life. The playful opening melody of “Reminiscence,” articulated by Eckemoff and Locke, introduces a piece that harkens back to the composer’s childhood in the Soviet Union, offering a glimpse of an imaginative child surrounded by a loving family. When her father enters at the poem’s end saying, “I met a rabbit on my way home / And look what a tasty treat he gave me for my little girl!” it’s as if the children’s book and the world outside have merged, a memory that feels like a fantasy, or a fantasy that feels like a memory.
“I was an only child and I spent a lot of time alone with picture books,” Eckemoff says. “There’s a certain mood to this song that somehow connects me to a time when I was five years old, and was in my world of literature and images.”
The aptly-titled “Exuberance,” which portrays a six-year-old Eckemoff eagerly if clumsily helping her mother and grandmother cook a family feast, and the tender “Affection,” about a beloved puppy, continue these warm memories of youth in a cold country. She skips forward to her own life as a parent with the frantic “Pep,” dizzy with the never-ending work of a wife, mother, artist, and teacher. The shadowy mood of “Reconciliation” provides a bittersweet image of domestic life, with arguments and hurt feelings overcome by a loving reunion, and “Encouragement” celebrates the support to be found in family.
Eckemoff’s music has often drawn inspiration from the natural world, and she returns to that theme on “Imagination,” a portrait of a snowy winter scene dreamed up on what turns out to be a sweltering summer day. “Tranquility” captures the pianist’s ability to tune out the harsh noise of the city to focus on the sounds of nature, while the title track watches a moth drawn to light in the same way that Eckemoff found herself pulled in by the broader notion of radiance. And despite the nostalgic stories and memories behind the songs on A Touch of Radiance, the music doesn’t indulge in manipulative or overwrought emotion. “I’m a sentimental person but I don’t write sentimental music,” Eckemoff says, adding with a laugh, “I know better.
“I’m an old-fashioned romantic,” she continues. “Feelings and emotions and of course nature are always what interest me, and I still believe in melodies.”
Eckemoff began playing piano at the age of four, studying first with her mother Olga, a professional pianist, then at the prestigious Gnessin Academy of Music and the Moscow State Conservatory. Despite the repressive atmosphere in the Soviet Union at the time, she began to explore rock and jazz music with other like-minded musicians. “Everything from the west was prohibited at that time,” she recalls, “and jazz was one of those things. But there was a jazz studio formed by some activists who were also professional musicians and we studied traditional jazz. I used jazz principles in my composing, which put me on a different path from other musicians.”
Eckemoff stepped away from her life as a concert pianist for several years to concentrate on raising her children. She finally left the Soviet Union with her husband, momentarily leaving her three children behind. “That was the hardest thing I ever did,” she says, “but we had the drive to leave the Soviet Union. It was a very hard and scary thing to do, but it worked out and we never regretted it. It ended up helping me in my musical development because I had much deeper spiritual experiences because of it.”
After returning to the piano, she turned increasingly to jazz and has now recorded several acclaimed albums with such respected players as Peter Erskine, Marilyn Mazur, Arild Andersen, Darek Oleszkiewicz, Mads Vinding, and Mats Eilertsen. “Very rarely am I surprised like I am with Yelena,” enthuses Hart. “Somebody that comes out of nowhere with this much maturity and experience and musicality. You don’t expect somebody that you don’t know to challenge you in such an enjoyable way. In a very euphoric way it was a very satisfying project for me.”
Press Release by Shaun Brady.
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) ARILD ANDERSEN (double bass) PETER ERSKINE (drums)
February 19, 2013
On her new album, Glass Song, Moscow-born pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff celebrates the season of renewal that ushers winter into spring with a mesmerizing set of crystalline beauty, available February 19, 2013 on L & H Production. In crafting this, the latest expression of her gorgeously delicate blend of classical intricacy and jazz invention, Eckemoff brings together two of modern music’s greatest improvisers for the first time: bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Peter Erskine.
Eckemoff herself is no stranger to rebirth. Classically trained, she has successfully transitioned into a strikingly assured jazz composer; raised in the Soviet Union, she fled her repressive homeland and has lived in the United States for the past two decades. Her evocations on spring’s rejuvenating thaw vividly illustrate her life experiences, as she hints in her liner note
“The same way as spring is always certain to replace even the most severe winter,” she writes, “hope is eternally present in the least favorable situations and in all circumstances of life.”
Eckemoff frequently turns to images of nature when composing, from the wintry landscapes of Cold Sun to the serene breezes of Grass Catching the Wind. But as she explains, the seasons suggest the constant change and evolution in life, which is even more important to her music. “I get inspired by nature a lot, because everything comes from nature,” she says. “But the observation of nature isn’t really my priority. I’ve had very, very rich experiences in my life, and the music I write expresses those feelings.”
Glass Song conjures images of sun glinting off of ice and frost melting away from windowpanes. It is also quite literal on the title track, which begins with the sound of Eckemoff playing water-filled glasses. But those concepts are equally present in the airy chill that opens the first track, “Melting Ice,” or in the shimmering rhythms of “Dripping Icicles.”
The trio that Eckemoff has assembled to help realize these reflective visions is composed of two of jazz’s most creative minds–who remarkably had not worked together prior to this recording. The legendary Erskine played with Weather Report and Steps Ahead in the early years of a career that has now spanned four decades and includes recordings and performances with everyone from Steely Dan to John Abercrombie, Joni Mitchell to Gary Burton and Pat Metheny. Norwegian bassist, Andersen, has an equally impressive resume, encompassing a six-year stint in the Jan Garbarek Quartet and more than a dozen albums as a leader for ECM.
Erskine had worked with Eckemoff on two earlier CDs, but the pianist had been searching for an opportunity to work with Andersen for a number of years, and Glass Song provided the perfect collection of material. “I was really excited about having the opportunity to put together those two giants for the first time,” Eckemoff says.
The combination works spectacularly, three distinctive voices seeming to breathe as one. The sensitivity of Erskine and Andersen serves Eckemoff’s fragile compositions with an airy but sure touch. The lush serenity of the leader’s piano is matched by the singing caress of Andersen’s bass and the hushed precision of Erskine’s percussion. The trio shares a deep intimacy while remaining attuned to the spaciousness of the pieces, all captured in the wondrously lush sound of the recording.
Eckemoff herself began playing piano at the age of four, studying first with her mother Olga, a professional pianist, then at the prestigious Gnessins Academy of Music and the Moscow State Conservatory. Despite the repressive atmosphere in the Soviet Union at the time, she began to explore rock and jazz music with other like-minded musicians. “Everything from the west was prohibited at that time,” she recalls, “and jazz was one of those things. But there was a jazz studio formed by some activists who were also professional musicians and we studied traditional jazz. I used jazz principles in my composing, which put me on a different path from other musicians.”
Eckemoff stepped away from her life as a concert pianist for several years to concentrate on raising her children. She finally left the Soviet Union with her husband, momentarily leaving her three children behind. “That was the hardest thing I ever did,” she says, “but we had the drive to leave Russia. It was a very hard and scary thing to do, but it worked out and we never regretted it. It ended up helping me in my musical development because I had much deeper spiritual experiences because of it.”
That sense of spiritual comes vividly to life in pieces like the sun-dappled “Sunny Day in the Woods” or the tender, evanescent “Sweet Dreams.” While the titles are accurate depictions, they’re almost unnecessary given the illustrative, purely emotional music itself. Once resettled in the States, Eckemoff returned to recording, taking advantage of modern recording techniques. Since then she has been stunningly prolific, first with classically oriented recordings and then with her reinvention as an elegant jazz musician in the past several years.
“Some people dance, some people sing, some people write,” Eckemoff explains. “When I feel something, I compose. It’s almost like I can’t stop it. My head is always filled with music. If I couldn’t write music I think I would just explode. Life is sometimes sad, but I find escape in writing music. I’m happy because I can do it.”
Press Release by Shaun Brady.