Carol Banks Weber for AXS
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.”