Carol Banks Weber interview for Festival Peak

Title: The ‘Little Bells’ in Yelena Eckemoff’s Jazz, Art, Poetry Multiverse

“Once upon a time, there was a tiny Seed lying in the ground.
It did not know what it was or how it got there.
It thought it had always been there,
Peacefully resting in its dry, cool bed.
One day the bed became moist,
And the Seed awoke feeling thirsty.
It started to swell and released tiny white roots… [‘In The Ground’]”

Yelena Eckemoff could easily moonlight as a painting artist, children’s writer, or romantic poet. Her jazz/classical concept albums have become multi-media, multiverse experiences, as she tells her stories from unique points of view: a lioness watching over her cubs, nature’s changing seasons, the scent of Blooming Tall Phlox, a lovely wildflower the Russian artist remembers fondly from childhood.

On March 19, 2021, the pianist/composer will release her lengthiest, “most developed” story yet, a two-disk, 18-track album gently chronicling the Adventures of the Wildflower (L&H Production), the Columbine (Aquilegia) — a favorite perennial of hummingbirds — from birth to renewed life.

Like most of her previous albums, this one is also accompanied by her original artwork and poetry, one poem for each original composition.

“I was intrigued to learn that plants communicate with each other through the air, by releasing odorous chemicals, and through the soil, by secreting soluble chemicals. Such communal life sparked my imagination. I started to envision how a single plant would feel being part of such an interconnected community and how it would react to its neighbors who lived next to it. Soon I had a kernel of an idea about a wildflower,” Eckemoff describes in a press release.

The feel of this new album will resonate with every listener, as they, too, encounter much of the same ups and downs, memorable moments and thrilling encounters, in their own circle of life.

With her, a talented Finnish group lending unexpected sounds and helping bring the Columbine to life, breath by breath: vibraphonist Panu Savolainen, saxophonist Jukka Perko, multi-instrumentalist Jarmo Saari (guitars, glass harp, theremin), double-bassist Antti Lötjönen, and drummer-percussionist Olavi Louhivuori. Lötjönen, Louhivuori, and Savolainen appeared on Blooming Tall Phlox, her 2017 album.

“They were fearless in approaching my extensive lead sheets,” she adds, recording in Helsinki in the summer of 2019.

“The story is longer and more developed than the conceptual writings in any of my previous albums.”
Jazz Medium digs a little deeper into Eckemoff’s train of thought in this, perhaps her most ambitious, thoughtful effort to connect us with nature, and each other, as the world deals with the aftermath of an unprecedented, isolating, scary pandemic. Look for a review of her new album soon.

What is Adventures of the Wildflower about?

The two-disc set tells the story of Columbine (named after the flower), from her origins as “a tiny Seed lying in the ground” through her final time on earth. Columbine becomes exposed to the natural wonders around her during her brief time on earth, experiencing both joy and sorrow, adversities and lucky breaks, and learns to communicate with other plants and all living things.

I narrowed my choices down to a Columbine species, because it was one of the plants I was familiar with from my childhood. My grandmother always had pink and blue Columbines in her garden. She called them “little bells,” and when she weeded the soil under the apple trees, she always kept the Columbine clusters intact. I remember that one time I was trying to help her with the weeding and pulled out some Columbine plants, and my grandmother was upset.

After I decided that the heroine of my story will be a Columbine, I studied all I could find about the Aquilegia species, so I would be true to the subject. From my experience with Columbines in my grandmother’s garden, I knew that they were always there, even though no one planted them. I was surprised to learn that Columbines are biennial plants, which means they bloom in their second year and then die. Yet they have such a strong life force that they always manage to seed themselves and continue on living.

[A Google search actually reports that the Columbine is very much perennial. Hmmm…]

I was moved to make this album as my answer to our turbulent times. I believe that nothing is more important than for all earthly beings to find a way to live together peacefully, next to each other in the same community. The characters in my story, such as plants, mushrooms, butterflies, hummingbirds, chickens, insects, and people, may have disagreements with each other, but in the end, they always find a way to co-exist together on the same plot of land.

How did this inspiration come about and how have you made this personally, uniquely yours? (What is your process?)

The album concept was inspired by an article in Scientist magazine that I came across a few years ago. I was intrigued to learn that plants communicate with each other through the air, by releasing odorous chemicals, and through the soil, by secreting soluble chemicals. These signals are the universal language understood by all species of plants and insects. Plants alert each other about incoming threats, such as colonies of parasitic insects. They create a united chemical response to thwart such attacks and to help members of their community that were weakened by these attacks already. Such communal life sparked my imagination. I started to envision how a single plant would feel being part of such an interconnected community and how it would react to its neighbors who lived next to it. Soon, I had a kernel of an idea about a wildflower.

“I am modestly proud to have been able — much to my own surprise — to create a story that fits into a space that is neither simply childlike, nor adult, but somehow both, tying an innocence of childhood with the wisdom of ripe age.”
What did you want to say through this music?

I wanted to create peaceful, communal images for these troubled times. I dare to believe that my Adventures of the Wildflower project bears messages of the fullness of life, acceptance, friendship, forgiveness, loyalty, and hope.

How has Covid-19 affected your songwriting and performances? What have you been doing during the lockdowns?

Since I rarely perform, my life stayed pretty much the same as always: I kept working on my musical projects, preparing material for new recordings, overseeing the release of Nocturnal Animals, and going through all stages of preparing my current album, Adventures of the Wildflower, for manufacturing and release. That work included writing the story, painting illustrations, designing the CD insert, etc. In the beginning of March [last year], I flew to Burbank, CA, for a mixing session with my engineer, Rich Breen. What drastically changed in my life is that I had to interrupt my teaching in the spring, and then I decided not to resume lessons at all, because I realized that the running of my small record label and working on my projects is taking more and more time and effort, while my strength is fading as I get older. I realized that if I decide to stop teaching, then not resume lessons after a necessary break inflicted by the pandemic, [then that] presents an opportunity to part with my students in a gentler and more humane way.

What are you most proud of about this album?

It seems like a merging of the three arts — music, literary word, and painting — has become a trademark of my self-expression as a musician. But I never explored this trinity to such an extent as in my Adventures of the Wildflower project. The story is longer and more developed than the conceptual writings in any of my previous albums. The text itself takes up 25 pages of the CD booklet, plus there are nine illustrations I painted in oil on canvas; I felt that the story is asking for more than just a cover art picture. So, I had to extend the size of the booklet to 44 pages. The musical part is also extensive — to support all the twists of the story, which has 18 parts. Moreover, I believe the sonic palette and stylistic flexibility of this album is the widest, broadest, richest yet, compared to all the projects I’ve done before.

I am modestly proud to have been able — much to my own surprise — to create a story that fits into a space that is neither simply childlike, nor adult, but somehow both, tying an innocence of childhood with the wisdom of ripe age.

How are you getting the word out about this new recording?

I will be running marketing PR and radio campaigns in the U.S., Germany, UK, and EU.

Besides, piano, what other instrument(s) speak to you in the music and why?

All instruments are important to me. They are like oils of different hues I paint with. As I compose music, I envision what ensemble of instruments would express some particular ideas of mine the best. For example, for Colors, I’ve chosen the piano/drums duo, because I felt the project would strike as more emotionally raw, as the story suggested. For Nocturnal Animals, I wanted to counter-balance strong piano and bass duo with the equal measure of percussion; that’s why I needed not one, but two drummers. That being said, the Adventures of the Wildflower project came from a spark of meeting Finnish guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Jarmo Saari, at the jazzahead! convention in Bremen. We talked, and Jarmo told me that he also played theremin and glass harp, which excited me, as I imagined all these extra colors in my music. I looked Jarmo up on YouTube and was really taken by his work with his fellow Finnish saxophonist Jukka Perko. The idea of going back to Finland after the success of the Blooming Tall Phlox album (inspired by nature’s smells and released in 2017) was always present in the back of my mind. But after getting inspired by Jarmo and Jukka’s lyrical playing, all I had to do to assemble a fantastic band, was to mix them with vibraphonist Savolainen, bassist Lötjönen, and drummer Louhivuori, who I so much enjoyed working with on Blooming Tall Phlox.