Dan McClenaghan for All About Jazz

Yelena Eckemoff has a lot to say artistically. The Russian-born, classically-trained pianist—now home-based in North Carolina—has released eight jazz albums in the past nine years, sets that are packed to the digital rafters with close to the time limit for the CD format—in the 70-plus minute range. For Lions, the ideas spilled over onto two CDs, a ninety-four minutes of music that is—according to the set’s drummer, Billy Hart—prophetic.

Eckemoff has a way of working with themes, with A Touch of Radiance (L & H Productions, 2014) exploring “a state of happiness or confidence when everything around you is shining,” and Cold Sun (L & H Productions, 2010) is a disc-length rumination on a lingering winter. Lions takes the thematic approach to a higher level.

The pianist came upon the theme of lions via bassist Arild Andersen, after he had worked with Eckemoff on Glass Songs (L & H Productions, 2010). He told her he had ordered a bass with a lions head carved onto its neck, and Eckmoff’s imagination took off. She saw her next recording as a trio of lions—herself, Andersen and Hart—leading into the idea of writing a suite about real lions, their environment, their lives and small pleasures and struggles. In the fashion of a sci- fi/fantasy work, Eckemoff even felt she had almost been been transformed into a lioness and transported to the savanna, interacting with the pride. Taken literally, it sounds farfetched. On another level, listening to this music, reading the poems that correspond to each musical piece (written by Eckemoff), and seeing the slightly surreal cover painting, by Eckemoff, it’s obvious her feelings in the direction of the fantasy were vivid and real, and productive.

Eckemoff’s classical side runs deep. For many, “Jazz” mean improvisation. But Eckemoff writes her tunes out, with relatively little improvisation room. On the other hand, Arild Andersen and Billy Hart are master improvisors with a combined hundred plus years experience. In this structured approach, with the pianist playing the written notes, the bassist and drummer are free to embellish and accent, to color and underscore, and to enhance and weave a tapestry of surprise and—in the case of this vibrant and very alive music from Eckemoff—inject a sense of wonder.

The disc opens with the title tune. Like all the music on the disc, it is intricate and cerebral and very engaging, with a “commanding grace.” “Migrating Birds” features Andersen’s signing, incisive bass and Hart’s subtle symphony with the brushes, evoking the flutter of a hundred wings of birds flushed from the brush. Eckemoff explores a pensive delicacy, wistfully.

On “Night in Savanna” the trio dips into the mystery and quietude of the dark hours with an unwavering aplomb, an unabashed impressionistic beauty. “Lions Blues” sounds like a celebration of the coolest, most bad-assed animal on the savanna, and “Instinct,” called by Eckemoff “a melody of love [that] pictures a shameless mating ground for innocent lions” is lovely beyond words.

Lions sounds like Yelena Eckemoff letting go, following her muse with a focused fervor. The music—structured gorgeousness in the embrace of the improvisational elan of Andersen and Hart—is Yelena’s strongest statement to date, a flawless and beguiling work of art.