Transfixed by the 98-minute album, I listened to Blooming Tall Phlox twice before researching the backstory of the unheralded but startlingly brilliant new release. I discovered that each of the selections is intended to evoke a different scent that Yelena Eckemoff recalls from her childhood in Russia. Whatever. I’m far more interested in the ingenious arrangements and stellar playing of Eckemoff and the young band of Finns who realize her vision. The cringey album trailer doesn’t reflect the project’s dazzling qualities.
Blooming Tall Phlox
Title: Eckemoff’s most maturely conceived, effortlessly liberated, superbly executed…and unpredictable…release to date.
With Blooming Tall Phlox, Yelena Eckemoff expands her already broad purview with an album that recalls her Russian childhood, through an unusual inspiration: smell.
Beyond demonstrating her increasingly impressive compositional and performance talents on a growing discography that has often featured A-List names like drummers Peter Erskine and Billy Hart, bassist Arild Andersen, violinist Mark Feldman and vibraphonist Joe Locke, recent albums including 2015’s impressive Lions (L&H) and 2016’s particularly moving Leaving Everything Behind (L&H) have begun featuring Eckemoff’s similarly compelling artwork and poetry.
But for Blooming Talk Phlox – a double-disc set with one disc subtitled “Winter Smells” and the other “Summer Smells” – Eckemoff has chosen to work with a group of young Finnish musicians, all either already known or well on their way to greater fame in their native country, but two of them also garnering international recognition for recordings on Munich’s ECM (drummer Olavi Louhivuori) and ACT (trumpeter/fluglehornist Verneri Pohjola) imprints. Joining Eckemoff, Pohjola and Louhivuori are rising star vibraphonist Panu Savolainen and double bassist Antti Lotjonen. Together, the quintet may have never played together prior to this recording session in the fall of 2013 but, based on the results on Blooming Tall Phlox, you’d never know it.
The music is, perhaps, the broadest assertion of Eckemoff’s growing confidence as a writer since she moved from her early years as a classically trained (and performing) pianist into a career in jazz that may have been relatively late in coming, but is all the more impressive for it. It’s been less than a decade, in fact, since Eckemoff released her first proper jazz trio album, 2009’s Cold Sun (on L&H Records, the label run by Eckemoff and her husband), but in the ensuing years she’s released, including Blooming Tall Phlox, nine additional albums that are demonstrative of a rapidly burgeoning talent in the jazz sphere.
If anything, Eckemoff’s distinctive, recognizable approach to melody has become even more prominent, albeit sometimes couched within more oblique concerns. Evocative song titles like “Apples Laid Out on the Floor,” “Wildflower Meadows” and “Old Fashioned Bread Store” not only palpably evoke the alluring odours that remind Eckemoff of her years growing up in Moscow before she left for the United States in 1991, but provide both vivid and immediate imagery and inspiration for this 98-minute set of fifteen new compositions.
The album-opening title track is an example of Yeckemoff’s increasing sophistication, with an open-ended, rubato introduction where Louhivuori’s chimes and delicate cymbal strokes support Eckemoff’s opening statement, which immediately demonstrates a touch capable of gossamer-like delicacy and firmer muscle. A cascading series of piano notes gently lead into the composition’s main theme, played with burnished beauty by Pohjola, as Lotjonen’s sinewy bass, in conjunction with Louhivuori’s subtly responsive combination of colour and propulsion, drive the second part of this six-minute piece whose episodic nature makes it feel much longer than it truly is…but in the best way possible. Two harmonic instruments – especially those that possess significant crossover in range – can often mean coordination difficulties–in looser vernacular, “train wrecks”–but Savolainen and Yeckemoff manage to coexist in effortless harmonic synchronicity, never stepping on one another’s toes.
And that’s just the first half of Blooming Tall Phlox’s opening track. Eckemoff also explores her more avant-leaning side with the abstract, rubato tone poem “Sleeping in Tent,” its reiterated theme acting as a rallying point between freer engagements amongst the quintet and brief, time-based structures that render the piece an episodic partner to the title track that didn’t exactly begin that way. From the Blooming Tall Phlox press sheet:
“’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.
Elsewhere, Louhvuori and Lotjonen support “Old Fashioned Bread Store” with a bit of loose, somehow timeless near-funk that relies less on firm backbeat and more on sparser intimation of groove. Eckemoff and Savolainen provide a dense harmonic cushion for Pohjola, who delivers one of his most emotive solos of the set…but, as is often the case throughout the album, without resorting to unnecessary gymnastics or pyrotechnics: instead, just deep, motif-driven ideas that lead to improvisations of potent, narrative construction. Eckemoff’s solo is an equally impressive demonstration of contrapuntal, fugue-like left-hand/right-hand coordination and a structure-building mindset.
“Wildflower Meadows” possesses, appropriately enough, a spacious sensibility and breezy disposition, though that’s not to suggest it’s anything but challenging under the covers. Pohjola’s effortless lyricism rides atop a complex blend of cross-rhythmic support from Eckemoff, Savolainen and Lotjonen, with Luohivuori providing the requisite rhythmic glue that harkens this track back to some of the best of ECM Records’ early days in the 1970s. “Pine Needles Warmed by the Sun,” on the other hand, is predicated on an idiosyncratic yet still somehow singable theme over a rhythmically open foundation that leads to an impressive, texture-driven drum solo that resolves into a more defined sense of time, over which Pohjola’s long-toned lines crest, atop Eckemoff and Savolainen, into a more outré solo, the trumpter squeezing out brief, staccato phrases that resolve into Eckemoff’s classical-leaning, intervallic-leaping theme, with Savolainen providing impeccable colours in the clouds while Lotjonen and Louhivuori provide ever-intensifying rhythmic ballast.
Impeccably recorded in Finland by Julius Mauranen and mixed/mastered by renowned American engineer Rich Breen (Oregon, Yellowjackets, Charlie Haden), there’s so much more to discover with this album that to give away all of its surprises would spoil the sense of discovery inevitable with its first spin. What Eckemoff has done, with Blooming Tall Phlox, is raise her own game as a writer, performer and bandleader while, at the same time, providing a clear context for the growth of her young Finnish band mates. While she’s always planning at least an album or two ahead, it would certainly be a nice surprise to see the pianist reconvene this superb group for another record sometime in the future. While there’s no denying that she easily holds her own with the bigger names that pepper many of her other releases, there’s a certain feeling of both comfort and informality that imbues Blooming Tall Phlox, clearly Eckemoff’s most maturely conceived, effortlessly liberated, superbly executed…and unpredictable…release to date.
Title: Yelena Eckemoff’s ‘Blooming Tall Phlox’ replays childhood memories
In a way, Yelena Eckemoff has spent her entire life breathing “in the happiness” of her childhood. Originally from the poem, “Scented candles and sparkling wine,” accompanying her latest album, this sentiment emboldens the Russian pianist and composer’s original works of art — of which there are many.
A prolific artist with a million ideas, Eckemoff follows up her May 2016 release, Leaving Everything Behind, with Blooming Tall Phlox. She actually worked on Blooming Tall Phlox earlier, recording the two-disk album in Finland Sept. 4-6, 2013 — two years before Leaving Everything Behind, currently on DownBeat’s “Best Albums of 2016.”
Both albums directly touch on her childhood in Russia, surrounded by a loving, extended family, the source of all her imaginative understanding.
In Blooming Tall Phlox (L&H Production), which comes out Jan. 20 officially, Eckemoff once again uses other media at her disposal and her discretion to bring her childhood to life. True to her classical-jazz impressionism, Eckemoff sees humanity in nature and objects of man-made construction.
Memories are found there, and she knows it.
Blooming Tall Phlox features an assortment of memories divided into two distinct categories based on the seasons of summer and winter. She devotes a foreign indie soundtrack to such things as “Apples laid out on the floor,” “Fish fried on open fire,” “Pine Needles warmed by the sun” — Disc 1 “Summer Smells” — and “Grandpa Lera’s bookcase,” “Mommy’s shawl,” and “Aunt Galya’s perfume” — Disc 2 “Winter Smells.”
For this extensive two-disk, 15-track album, Eckemoff plays with a group of musicians from overseas, Finland to be exact. They are Verneri Pohjola (trumpet, flugelhorn), Panu Savolainen (vibes), Antti Lötjönen (double bass), and Olavi Louhivuori (drums, percussion).
If music held the key to the spirits of loved ones, somehow Eckemoff has found a form of two-way communication. As in previous releases, she designed the album, she painted the cover of herself as a child amongst her beloved phlox, and she wrote the poems that glimpse even more of the feeling and thought behind the notes.
The love notes themselves are vastly detailed, yet dreamy, dense yet ethereal, reflective yet enlightening, confident yet full of give and take — traits Eckemoff shares.
This is an album to absorb in its entirety, from start to finish, with frequent browsing of the poetry and the art, a brief rumination of one’s own childhood memories and the possessions left behind.
Individual moments also convey a sense of nostalgia, longing, even a mystical wonder. The fairy dust of Eckemoff’s own piano intro on “Blooming Tall Phlox,” the percussive flap and flutter mimicking “Baba Liza’s Singer” sewing machine, the slick sensation of a horn’s tension and release on “Talks Over Hot Tea”… these things depict a child’s wonder at the everyday things adults take for granted.
To a child, there is still magic in the air, in everything she and those she holds dear touch.
Eckemoff’s modern jazz touches remain impressive, however. This is no atmospheric run, as evidenced strongly in “Apples laid out on the floor.” Everyone on this straight-ahead, post-modern piece exhibits a tactile sensation relevant to jazz’s harmonic building blocks and that sweet exchange of instrumental titles.
Eckemoff herself shows a mastery of both her classical training and later jazz interests in this composition especially. Her inflective, interior piano journey on “Apples laid out…” stands alone, no accompaniment necessary. The accompanying musicians, however, only add to the benefit of the overarching ideas of sensory perception in memories idealized through childhood.
They capture those idealized memories from sense of smell to music entirely. Don’t look for rough-hewn, nihilistic realism here. Eckemoff’s above that.
Yelena Eckemoff is a bandleader who uses every single resource exceptionally. Nothing ever goes to waste in her hands, either.
“I had the idea of writing music about smell for some time before I met with [drummer] Olavi [Louhivuori] in Finland,” Eckemoff explained in a DL Media press release. “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 various aromas. I brought 15 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, 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.”
Pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff delivers a charming two disc album that delivers sonic pictures of summer and winter. The band of her with Verneri Pohjola/tp-fh, Panu Savolainen/vib, Antti Lotjonen/b and Olavi Louhivuori/dr-perc create audible impressions of various seasonal associations.
For instance, disc one consists of “Summer Smells” which includes “Blooming Tall Phlox” sounding like crystalline and gentle piano, wafting flugelhorn and pulsing bass. The calm vibes chime on “Apples Laid Out On The Floor” while Louhivuori rustles and Pohjola puffs on “ Wildflower Meadows.” You can feel the sounds of the campfire as the percussion snaps like dried twigs during “Sleeping in the Tent” and some mystical piano jins with Eckemoff’s ivories for a rich scent of “Fish Fried on Open Fire.”
For “Winter Smells” Louhivuori’s brushes skate on a lake while Pohjola brews on “Talks Over Hot Tea” and you can smell the must on the shelves as piano and vibes create shadows on “Grandpa Lera’s Bookcase.” Delicate toy-like chimes flutter on “Clementines and Candies on Christmas Tree” and after a fragrant jaunt on “Aunt Galya’s Perfume” the team closes in an Auld Lang Syne cheerful and nostalgic “Scented Candles and Sparkling Wine.”
Two fewer seasons than Vivaldi, but with more stories and characters.
Russian classical pianist and composer Yelena Eckemoff infuses more of her modern sense of jazz on yet another winning, personal reflection, set to music and art — all hers. Blooming Tall Phlox is what she most remembers and cherishes of her childhood with loving grandparents back in her homeland of Russia, before the conflicts that were beyond her and before the heartbreaking separation of her family during the time she and her husband left for the U.S. to make a better life. Scheduled for release Jan. 20, 2017 on her L&H Production, the two-part double-album is the prolific artist’s 10th jazz venture.
“I had the idea of writing music about smell for some time before I met with [drummer] Olavi [Louhivuori] in Finland,” Eckemoff explained in a DL Media release. “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 various aromas. I brought 15 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, 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.”
Eckemoff tries to capture all of the senses through her music, artwork, and poetry, even the smell of the phlox, “Apples Laid Out On The Floor,” “Wildflower Meadows,” and “Old Fashioned Bread Store.”
She goes to some pretty crazy places to get her points across. “Talks Over Hot Tea” nearly replicates the sound of the tea kettle on the boil in the tension and release of the horns toward the end.
The horns figure heavily in the sense-memory of the music, which pushes the edgy in her take on modern jazz.
She switched up the personnel somewhat by employing young, talented musicians from Finland, musicians able to read and improvise when needed: trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, drummer Olavi Louhivuori, vibraphonist Panu Savolainen, and double bassist Antti Lötjönen.
While the art of playing jazz qualifies as a multisensory experience, involving listening, touching, and seeing, it usually doesn’t extend so far as to include the sense of smell. But that’s not to say that a nose for scents has no place in musical and artistic spheres. If you need convincing, just look at Blooming Tall Phlox.
For her tenth album in six years, pianist Yelena Eckemoff uses life and nature’s bouquets as her muse. Her memory sniffs out various ideas and moments in time, which are then remarkably translated to the page and further expanded upon in performance. There are no secrets to be found in the titles themselves, as Eckemoff points directly to the aromas and odors that inspired them, but the music is full of mystique and aural arcana. In considering those facts, Blooming Tall Phlox can accurately be described as Eckemoff’s most and least direct album to date.
Eckemoff and her band, comprised of up-and-coming Finnish musicians, explore fifteen different topics here, split over two CDs and divided into two seasonal categories—”Summer Smells” and “Winter Smells.” The album opens in the former season with the title track. A gentle metallic clang greets the listener, inviting the ears into a free and nebulous atmosphere at first glance. Bassist Antii Lötjönen eventually helps the music to coalesce, and trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, entering more than a minute into the piece, further assists in the binding process. Pohjola’s searching horn draws focus upon its entrance, but it doesn’t retain control. Eventually solid shapes are reduced to seemingly formless wanderings that eventually merge anew and evolve into a courtly dance for Eckemoff, Pohjola, vibraphonist Panu Savolainen. This initial offering doesn’t define what’s to follow, but it illustrates how concrete writing and indeterminate thoughts both have a seat at the table when Eckemoff is at the head of it.
As Eckemoff and company continue to move through the lazy days of summer, they continue to toy with expectations. “Apples Laid Out On The Floor,” a number with a swinging subtext, benefits from the use of an accelerando and rallentando that help to create a tempo arc in the music; “Baba Liza’s Singer” builds off of minimalistic layering before using Pohjola as a directional beacon to take the music from dirge-like depths to soaring heights; “Old-Fashioned Bread Store” sways and swoons, presents some of Eckemoff’s hippest soloing on the album, and offers another opportunity to appreciate the interplay between trumpet, piano, and vibraphone; and “Fish Fried On Open Fire” presents like an attractively quirky tango in a slow glide, inviting the ear to take part in an oddly alluring dance.
The trip into winter that occurs on the second disc is equally intriguing, but it isn’t the icy spell that might be expected. Eckemoff certainly conjures a chill, as displayed on the sedate yet impactful “Smoke From The House Chimneys In Frosty Air,” but she largely shuns glacial tempos and oh-so-spare atmospheres here. “Clementines And Candies On Christmas Tree,” for example, puts beauty and strength in balance and focus, and “Scented Candles And Sparkling Wine” grows from daintiness and gaiety to a controlled groove that’s magic.
Whether you appreciate this music or not, you really have to hand it to Eckemoff. She’s quickly managed to create an enviable body of work that blends post-modern abstraction, classical thought, and jazz language into a seamless whole. There’s a fearlessness in her art that’s not always addressed in discussions of her work. It’s not so easy to just dive into jazz when you’re further down life’s road, it’s certainly a challenge to try to match forces with some of the music’s giants shortly after taking the initial plunge, and it’s quite difficult to create original music that offers intelligent thought and surprise when you’re working under the aforementioned realities. Kudos to her for overcoming those obstacles.
Eckemoff may not be a pure jazz musician, but who is these days? She has her own voice, she knows how to utilize her gifts, and she’s managed to create quite a lot of compelling music in an incredibly short period of time. We may not know where she’ll go next, but if the recent past is any indication, she’ll probably go there soon, and it will probably be a trip unlike any other.
Blooming Tall Phlox (L &H, 2016) is Yelena Eckemoff’s tenth album, recorded in september 2013. This 2CD set, studio performed by the pianist with Verneri Pohjola (trumpet and flugelhorn), Panu Savolainen (vibraphone), Antti Lotjonen (double bass) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums, percussion), was conceived, states the leader, with “the idea of writing music about smell for some time before I met with drummer Olavi Louhivuori in Finland… 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”. The music merges her jazz approaches with mysterious and crepuscular sonorities.
Title: HOLIDAY MUSIC AND NEW CD RELEASES FOR 2017
As the very first tune plays on this exotic production, the music recalls ice chips and cracking icicles. At least, that’s what the music conjures up in my imagination. There is something cold, crisp and white as winter about this composition called, “Blooming Tall Phlox.”. But as the piano solo deepens, so does the season. Suddenly I see butterflies in the music, pollinating new growth and suckling budding flowers. It is Spring and the sun streams in rays of vibraphone music. On cut #2, “Apples laid out on the floor”, bassist Antti Lotojonen takes a solo that has me picturing green plants pushing their heads through brown earth, soaking up yellow sunshine and growing tiny leaves right before my eyes. This is the kind of album that taps into creative imagery with its free form movement and modern jazz approach to Eckemoff’s memories of her childhood in Russia. Over the course of six years, producing ten albums along the way, Eckemoff seems to be expanding her visions and artistry on this recording. It’s CD number eleven and features her concept of composing music that celebrates summer smells and winter smells. Intriguing! “Old Fashioned Bread Store” has blues under-tones and Olavi Louhivuori’s drums add a delicious, unpredictable flavor beneath the various tempos. He enhances the surprises that Eckemoff has in store for her listeners. She manages to blend classical technique and the sweet sounds of jazz like an expert baker. Eckemoff explains it best in her liner notes:
“I had the idea of writing music about smell for some time before I met with drummer Otavi Louhivuon in Finland. 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 various aromas. 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. … 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 that time.”
The resulting, beautiful hand-painted CD cover is a testament to Eckemoff’s vast creativity and exceptional artistic talents. It’s a 2-CD set and I found the “Winter Smells” side to be my favorite, with a beautiful combination of seven classical and jazz soaked songs reminiscent of Miles Davis’ “Sketches In Spain” era. Verneri Pohjola adds lovely dynamics and mood to this audio treasure on trumpet and flugelhorn. Panu Savolainen’s stunning addition of xylophone throughout creates a textured or layered effects in the music, much like the painting on the cover; colorful and artistic. Ekemoff’s CD will be available January 20, 2017.