Lonely Man and His Fish
Yelena Eckemoff, Kirk Knuffke, Masaru Koga, Ben Street, Erik Harland
April 28, 2023
Yelena Eckemoff, Kirk Knuffke, Masaru Koga, Ben Street, Erik Harland
April 28, 2023
Yelena Eckemoff - piano, Rhodes, keyboards, composition; Ralph Alessi, - trumpet; Adam Rogers - el. guitars; Ben Monder - el. guitar; Christian Howes - violin; Drew Gress - bass; Nasheet Waits - drums; Joey Baron - drums.
May 20, 2022
Yelena Eckemoff - piano and composition; Jarmo Saari - guitars, theremin, glass harp; Jukka Perko - saxophones; Panu Savolainen - vibraphone; Antti Lotjonen - double bass; Olavi Louhivuori - drums and percussion.
March 19, 2021
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) Manu Katche (drums)
February 22, 2019
Everything is filtered through my inner feelings and expressed through melody and harmony, but this isn’t about me. It’s about the average course of anyone’s life.
Pianist-composer Yelena Eckemoff casts her eye on the visible spectrum with “Colors,” her third album in just over a year, set for a February 22 release on her own L&H Production label. Accompanied only by the brilliant French drummer Manu Katché, Eckemoff creates musical impressions of 14 distinct hues, organizing them into a symbolic progression through the stages of life—using a panoply of styles as diverse as the spectrum itself.
“Colors” is both a popular title and subject in the jazz world, placing Eckemoff into a tradition that extends from Ellington’s magnum opus “Black, Brown and Beige” to Miles Davis’s late-period suite Aura. The Russian-born pianist’s conception is unique, however. There is striking originality in its stylistic breadth, its intimate duet setting, and its panoramic view of the human life span—which Eckemoff also maps with a series of free-verse poems that correspond to each color and composition.
“Ultimately, everything is filtered through my inner feelings and expressed through melody and harmony, but this isn’t about me,” says Eckemoff. “I deliberately avoided any autobiographical references. It’s about the average course of anyone’s life.”
That course runs from the “White” of birth’s blank slate to the “Black” of death’s unknowable void. The path within this framework, however, deviates from the basic light-to-dark progression that it suggests. “White” is followed by “Pink,” representing an infant’s discovery and perception of the world; “Orange” is the burst of youthful energy; “Violet” is the thrill of first love. As the life matures, a more sophisticated palette comes into play: “Bordeaux” portrays a bottle of wine as a nuanced metaphor for an aging mind and body, while “Aquamarine” evokes the ocean, along with an array of associated memories and sentiments.
Eckemoff’s playing style similarly zigzags from point to disparate point, according to the moods and ideas expressed in each piece. Where “Indigo” is grim jazz-rock, “Blue” evolves from an exquisite lyrical ballad into a violent emotional storm, to be followed by the sultry but playful passions of “Red” and “Brown”’s whimsical waltz of inspiration.
The range of ideas in the music is informed by Eckemoff’s work with drummer Katché, whose remarkable individuality made him a natural fit for the project. “He’s always searching for grooves, while my music is a combination of structured and improvisational approaches,” she says. “This was exactly what I wanted—the groovy, spicy drums which would be a world in themselves and not merely following the piano.”
Yelena Eckemoff was born in Moscow, where she started playing by ear and composing music when she was four and attended Gnessins School for musically gifted children. During her teens she became devoted to rock music, even as she studied classical piano at Moscow State Conservatory.
In her early twenties, her eclectic musical interests extended into jazz. The standard repertoire was her primary teacher, though she applied those lessons to the writing of new tunes. Eckemoff’s witnessing of Dave Brubeck’s 1987 concert in Moscow, however, changed her life, leading directly to the formation of her first band that “tried to play jazz.”
Playing jazz proved to be a difficult proposition, due both to the complexity of her compositions and to the repressive nature of the Soviet regime. On the latter issue, she devoted herself (at great personal cost) to obtaining a U.S. visa, finally doing so in 1991 and settling in North Carolina.
The former was a matter of finding high-caliber musicians to play with, which she would also eventually achieve. “Cold Sun,” her 2010 debut jazz recording, featured the great Danish bassist Mads Vinding and the legendary American drummer Peter Erskine. By the time of 2018’s “Better Than Gold and Silver,” she was able to attract an all-star lineup that included the likes of trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron.
Then came “Colors,” and the chance to work with Katché—at which she jumped, knowing the strength of their musical connection. “I felt the closeness of our souls,” she says, “and thought that it would be a pleasant and exciting challenge to make this record with him.”
Yelena Eckemoff will perform a solo piano concert at the Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, on Wednesday 2/27, and at KITO Vegesack, Bremen, Germany, on Thursday 4/25.
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) TOMAS CRUZ (vocals) KIM MAYO (VOCALS) RALPH ALESSI (trumpet) BEN MONDER (guitar) CHRISTIAN HOWES (violin) DREW GRESS (double bass) JOEY BARON (drums)
September 21, 2018
The prolific Russian-born, North Carolina-based pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff adds a sacred dimension to the ambitious series of concept albums in her extensive catalogue her new 2-CD set Better Than Gold and Silver. Due for September 21 release on her imprint L&H Production, it\’s the first in a projected series of recordings featuring Eckemoff\’s settings of Biblical psalms. The new album includes both vocal and instrumental versions of 10 songs she conceived as works of modern jazz rather than part of the Christian music canon.
While the album\’s lyrics — beautifully sung by tenor Tomás Cruz and mezzo-soprano Kim Mayo — are word-for-word verses from the King James Bible (the album\’s title is based on verse 72 from Psalm 119: \”The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver\”), Eckemoff explains in her liner notes that the music is what she \”heard behind the words.\” What she heard and composed is highly melodic, multilayered, intricately structured jazz that takes full advantage not only of her virtuoso pianism, but also of the distinctive talents of the all-star team of instrumentalists she enlisted for the project: trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, violinist Christian Howes, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron.
The genesis of Eckemoff\’s interest in composing jazz settings for sacred texts dates back to her time in her native Moscow, where she and her husband were searching for something to fill the spiritual void around them. They found it in the hymns and religious songs of the city\’s only Baptist church and its choir and pipe organ; soon, these former atheists were drawn into Christianity and baptized.
Looking for texts with which she could musically commune with her newfound faith, Eckemoff turned to the psalms in a Russian bible, but had trouble understanding its Old Slavonic language. She searched in vain for an English bible in a country that banned religious texts. Eventually an American missionary she\’d written to sent her a Bible adapted for people speaking English as a second language.
Years later, having overcome overwhelming odds and emigrated to the U.S., Eckemoff was informed by a minister in her North Carolina hometown that she had been using the wrong version of the Bible. She discovered the King James version was indeed deeper, richer, and more poetic, and its psalms inspired this, her first collection of sacred texts in jazz settings.
Yelena Eckemoff has been composing since she was four years old, her musical impressions taken from her mother, a pianist and teacher. Years of academic studies at Gnessins School for musically gifted children, followed by the Moscow Conservatory, provided a solid foundation in classical music. But as she grew into her teens she developed an interest in other musical styles, like pop, rock, and jazz, although this was a time when jazz recordings were scarce in Russia.
Eckemoff attended Dave Brubeck\’s legendary concert in Moscow in 1987, a pivotal moment for her and many other Russian musicians. Though she had already started playing jazz before hearing Brubeck, this was one of the first jazz concerts she had attended, and she was so impressed she formed her own band and \”tried to play jazz.\”
Stylistically, Eckemoff\’s writing and playing reference classical music, the blues, jazz-rock fusion, free-jazz and, occasionally, funk. Her recordings this decade have each dealt conceptually with a particular theme. Glass Song (2013), her first project pairing Arild Andersen and Peter Erskine (who surprisingly had never played together before), features songs about rain, melting ice, and clouds. A Touch of Radiance (2014), with Mark Turner, Joe Locke, George Mraz, and Billy Hart, is dedicated to happiness while Lions (2015), featuring Andersen and Hart,
captures life in the savannah with songs about those majestic cats and their cubs as well as migrating birds and tropical rains. Eckemoff\’s previous release, Desert (May 2018), captures musically the mysteries and mesmerizing allure of one of nature\’s most daunting environments.
Better Than Gold and Silver is an exceptional addition to the lineage of works inspired by religion like Duke Ellington\’s Sacred Concerts, John Coltrane\’s A Love Supreme, and Steve Reich\’s own interpretation of the Psalms, Tehillim. \”I\’ve been smitten and humbled by the profundity of the psalms,\” Eckemoff confesses, \”not only as sacred texts, but as a marvelous treasure of the poetic art. I found out for myself that there\’s a lot to be learned from these verses even in our modern world about the eternal questions of life and death — what is the meaning of life, what makes people happy, what we leave behind after we die, and where to find strength to go about the daily labors and survive in the face of
Yelena Eckemoff will showcase Better Than Gold and Silver — with Tomás Cruz, voc; Ralph Alessi, tpt; Jeff Miles, g; Drew Gress, b; Jochen Rueckert, d — at a free concert on Friday 10/5, 7pm, St. Peter\’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue, NYC.
Press Release by Terri Hinte, August 11, 2018
YELENA ECKEMOFF (piano & compositions) PAUL MCCANDLESS (oboe, English horn, sopr. sax, b. clarinet) ARILD ANDERSEN (double bass) PETER ERSKINE (drums, percussion)
May 4, 2018
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.