Yelena Eckemoff, with her brand-new release, “Lonely Man and His Fish,” pushes the bar even higher, in terms of artistic accomplishment. How is that even possible? With each successive album, over the last two decades, Yelena has been the very definition of tasteful and creative jazz explorations. She has rallied the absolute finest musicians anywhere on every single one of her welcome contributions, the current one surely no exception.
For starters, the title cut here leaps out of the gate with everyone’s drummer of the moment, Eric Harland, in marching duet with Yelena (her touch on piano is unparalleled), alongside the syncopated interactions of bassist extraordinaire, Ben Street, and brilliant-toned cornetist, Kirk Knuffke. Wait: is that Yelena switching to Fender Rhodes mid-stream? What a joy to see/hear her incorporating electric piano and celeste (on “Man and His Fish,” for example) into her already formidable presentation of acoustic piano technique across this entire album. Yelena never sits still, that’s for sure!
I particularly love that Yelena is no stranger to including off-the-beaten-track instrumentalists across her rich and varied career. Here, for example, is featured Masaru Koga on all manner of Japanese flutes (for example, on “First Evening at Home” and “Breakfast for Two”). Yelena’s catholic tastes show up in her compositions and arrangements, as well. Take the second cut here as just one instance: “Pet Store,” where funk meets humor meets A-level improvisation.
In fact, this album is testament to Yelena’s open-minded, ever-growing sensibility. Having immersed myself in Yelena’s music for the past decade-and-a-half, I can honestly observe that I don’t believe there has ever been an album of hers which felt in any way redundant, or even derivative of that which preceded it. Yelena seeks originality: both in her ever-evolving roster of co-contributors and in her prolific, always fresh cascade of jazz compositions. What a joy to encounter such reliable creativity in one individual’s expansive vision!
On a slightly more personal note: Yelena knows that I have played jazz drums for nearly 60 years now. At last, it seems, the “old man” is needing to slow down. Recent surgeries have made it impossible for me to continue playing my beloved “tubs.” In fact, it has been hard for me to even listen to the jazz I have only ever loved. Something about hearing jazz played – especially at such a high level as this presentation — makes me so desirous to play, and the thwarting of that latter wish has at times been challenging to bear. I know that, given time, I’ll be back to listening, if not performing; and certainly more jazz concerts locally will again return to my calendar. But I have a singular compliment, and heart-gratitude, to offer you, Yelena…
Yours is the first album of contemporary improvised music – by any other name, jazz at its very best – that I have been able to listen to in virtually this entire past year. (I know, it must sound like abomination!) Yet all I had to do was open this compact disc (two, in fact), turn up the volume, turn down the lights, and find my way back to this first, deep love once more. It’s this album, dear Yelena, this immense gift of yours, that turned things around just in time. I hope it may touch the ears, the hearts, the being, of others even a fraction of what it has for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you, maestro!
P.S. To the receptive listener, please enjoy Yelena’s accompanying love story, between a man, his fish-partner, and a certain trumpet’s dreamy reconnection. That tale, including Yelena’s art (how can one individual be so talented?), is surely the cherry on top of this very tasty, jazz sundae!
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on December 30, 2022
Whether interpreted vocally or instrumentally, the major themes of the Psalms are all here – the greatness of God, praises of his Glory, his goodness, kindness, love, caring for the oppressed, and the goal of our future. Yelena’s journey is our journey – searching for truth and meaning in an incomprehensible world. The biblical David, author of many of the Psalms, played his harp for King Samuel to drive out the evil spirits. Let this music have its own effect on you.
The title reflects a passage found both in Proverbs and The Book of Job: Where Can Wisdom Be Found? The ocean depths say, ‘It is not in me,’ while the sea declares, ‘It is not with me.’ It cannot be bought with gold, nor can its price be weighed out in silver. Just listen for it.
Also, it should be mentioned that on Better Than Silver and Gold, Yelena’s text of the Psalms is presented without change, word-for-word, from the King James Version of the Bible. A challenge she faced was to keep every word in its place, yet to create recognizable melodies and music that would make sense overall in a jazz idiom.
5.0 out of 5 stars
Title: I’m Always Careful to say “The Best …. “
Especially with Yelena, because every time I listen to her latest release I say to myself “My God, this one’s her best one yet!” And then normally I’ll then play the one just before, and then I’ll go back and play a few more. I consider myself very lucky to have them all, and I pop them into the drawer of the CD player probably more often than any other single artist. Following the journey from her first piano trio recordings and on through the continuing changes as each new release comes out has been a journey I truly hope to never end. With “I Am A Stranger In This World” Yelena has once again chosen an ideal selection of sidemen to support the thoughts that she had as she wrote each Psalm. The manner in which she changes the mood, alters the tempo and weaves through the very mysteries of her melodies always holds my attention in a tight grip. On this album I especially enjoyed the playing of Ralph Alessi. His playing is always right on the mark, and his ease at dipping into the Avant Garde is just fun, and I enjoy that each player has his own signature sound, but in whichever combination Yelena has them set up throughout the recording is their interplay feels completely natural. Once again I can very simply sum up “I’m A Stranger In This World” by saying, “Yelena, thank you so much and I can hardly wait for the next!”
5.0 out of 5 stars
Title: A Deeply Felt Jazz CD!
Reviewed in the United States on July 15, 2022Verified Purchase
I hear a very different feel on this cd from Yelena’s recent music. I hear anxiety and soul searching, but I also hope in the more Gospel influenced songs, like “I Shall Not Want.” The composition and musicianship are first quality as always. The interplay is so natural! Yelena’s cd joins the great tradition of religious influence in Jazz, as in the works of Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, and of course, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Keep the faith, and keep helping us all find a way out of this age through your music!
Reviewed in the United States on April 3, 2022
What better gift to receive — having made it through what appears to be the worst of our ongoing, and horribly destructive, global pandemic — than a gift borne of the very opposite of such physical destruction, namely, that of spiritual creation? Yelena Eckemoff’s latest, thoroughly multimedia album is just exactly what the doctor ordered…
Ms. Eckemoff features yet again a combined synthesis of the most advanced presentation of contemporary jazz (more about that soon), her own illustrations of the theme du jour (natural beauty), and her original poetry to accompany and amplify the former. A total package!
In fact, if as Oscar Wilde observed — “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” — then how else can I explain that my own daughter, Amanda, and I have managed to keep our souls alive through COVID by co-creating just such a melange of recorded music and poetry (mine) coupled with photographs and artistic treatments (Amanda’s)? Yelena: your intrepid artistry has rubbed off in the most felicitous way imaginable, and we thank you!
Back to the musical portion of Ms. Eckemoff’s latest offering: I have loved every single album of her prodigious career, and yet this newest one may well be my favorite of all. Why is that? Yelena has brought together once again a truly sterling ensemble (this time, from Finland) whose skills and sonorities I find to be the ideal vehicle for the composer’s imagination. Yelena orchestrates her piano-based jazz compositions for a never richer palette of sounds: everything from vibraphone, electric guitar, and Theremin (yes, you heard me correctly!) to stellar support from surely one of my favorite drummers on the planet (Olavi Louhivuori), along with jazz sax and bass contributions that just consistently work.
Yelena has never created such sumptuously gorgeous music right up next to daring avant-garde leaps into the abstract, and back again, quite like Adventures of the Wildflower. From the moment I fired up this new disc, I was taken into what felt like her private universe of highly unusual and personal colors, one more varied than ever before, yet as integrated in overall conception as virtually everyone of her recordings has been. I personally believe it’s Yelena’s deep background in classical music that makes for such rich tapestries in her compositional and arranging skill set. When she combines that, as she consistently does, with an improviser’s heart (and ear)…well, I’m not sure jazz gets much better, nor more rewarding on multiple listenings, than the album I hope you are now holding in your hands. Enjoy!
5.0 out of 5 stars
Title: A Beautiful, Inspirational Bloom
Reviewed in the United States on May 24, 2021
Here again, we have the compositional creativity and melodic mastery as always given to us by Yelena Eckemoff, and presented to us by Yelena and her always excellent selection of sidemen. This collection blooms for the listener from Ethereal to Avant Garde and even a touch of Fusion, all swirling around a core of pure, unfettered jazz.
The musical story presented here by Yelena is peaceful and fun, but it’s the music that just grabs you. The interplay between Yelena and her band is, as always, just top-notch. Her ability to connect with players of like minds and styles is uncanny. While one or two are at the fore, someone is always busy in the background with all sorts of intricacies. The vibraphonist (Panu Savolainen) puts forth his expertise steadily throughout the record, as does the reeds player (Jukka Perko). The often background, but steady and fascinating playing by guitarist (Jarmo Saari) keeps your ears glued to music. And as always the rhythmic core of bassist (Antili Lotjonen) and brilliant drummer (Olavi Louhivuori) keep things pushing forward with panache, elan and with perfect cohesion and force.
At least for this listener, the added bonus is how the story so matches my own here in Vermont. With the change of seasons, our having pollinator gardens that draw hummingbirds and butterflies, it really touches the hearts of my wife and me. As I play it I can see my dog out in the yard, indeed chasing a mouse (or chipmunk, squirrel, etc.), the constant activity of weeding and tending the garden, and just generally being one with nature. Just as when I play this album I feel as one with the music.
Another brilliant showing by Yelena and Co., destined to be one of the most significant albums of 2021.
Another beautiful release from the ever prolific Yelena Eckemoff. Tapped into some primal source of uninterruptible melody that is always entirely original yet somehow deeply familiar, each album is like the next instalment of some patiently understated but ultimately mighty unfolding song. It’s so hard to put one’s finger on exactly what it is that makes her music so special and yet it is important to do so if more people are to be convinced to check out just what they are missing. I described her work to someone as composition led, European chamber jazz. Classically trained in piano and composition her works breaks the typical jazz formula of ambitious right hand improvisation over chordal grooves and riffs in the left. Her music is properly polyphonic, with ideas moving in from above and below and between both hands, in ceaseless contrapuntal invention. There is improvisation, but the improvisation is always in the service of the composition, and it is often hard to tell where one starts and the other leaves off. As such this does not conform to the standard modern jazz pattern of the song being just a vehicle for improvisation. It is something rather unique.
That is the structure of her music but then there is its character. Everything Yelena does starts and ends with nature, and a life lived easily within its rhythms, in awareness of the miraculous in the everyday. Her music is always kind, gentle, seldom resorting to strident crescendos. There is also humour, wisdom and despite these qualities an earthiness that avoids merely pretty escapism. A thing I admire is despite the predominately spacious feel, and the subtle interplay between musicians it encourages, she doesn’t fall into what I call ‘the ECM trap’ of just making moods with pretty noises soaked in reverb. Music is always central, the momentum of notes and chords coming and going, telling stories. When there is improvisation it is never about testosterone fuelled pyrotechnics or racing to beat one’s own or anyone else’s personal bests. Improvisation is always a means of extending the meaning of the composition. Of making sure the next note or chord is the most interesting, however long it takes to find it. Her ability to find other musicians who stay within the discipline of this aesthetic is itself remarkable.
With this particular album she has gone back to Finland to work within a six-piece context whose core is the guys with whom she made Blooming Tall Flox; my erstwhile favourite, if just because it was the first I heard. With this many players there is a sense of orchestration, of instruments moving in and out in varying combinations that is rather different in structure from the profound intimacy of her trio work, such as Glass Song. Indeed, in my mind I can hear some of these pieces laid out for orchestra. It would be fascinating to see how she communicates her intentions in the studio to her players because what she gets out of them is in no way typical of the usual ‘jazz gig’.
Again, the album is packaged with Yelena’s own exquisite artwork and the little prose poems that set the scene for each track. This multimodal aspect of her work is, it seems to me, is more than just embellishment. Rather, they are aspects of a deeply unified creativity lived in service of a quiet but powerful spiritual vision. I found myself wondering who her classical influences might be; the tender side of Beethoven occurred to me. But, curiously I realised the artist who most comes to mind is William Blake, who of course is not a composer at all.
5.0 out of 5 stars
Title: The jacket and the performance are great.
Reviewed in Japan on August 28, 2019Verified Purchase
I didn’t know this pianist, but I bought six copies since then when I happened to hear this play in a CD store. I was attracted to the beauty of the jacket, and I was also interested in female pianists. Classical with jazz scent, it’s great. The first CD I heard was GLASS SONG.
5.0 out of 5 stars
Reviewed in Japan on August 28, 2019Verified Purchase