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