Dan McClenaghan for All About Jazz
A Moscow-raised, classically-trained pianist, Yelena Eckemoff made the move to the United States in 1991, after being bitten by the jazz bug via a Dave Brubeck concert she attended in Moscow in 1987. In 2010, after settling with her family in rural North Carolina, she released Cold Sun (L & H Records), a trio outing featuring bassist Mads Vinding and drummer Peter Erskine. She followed up this fine debut with several more albums, all on her L & H Label, teaming again with drummer Erskine, bassist Arild Andersen, drummers Marilyn Mazur and Billy Hart, saxophonist Mark Turner and vibraphonist Joe Locke.
So, how does a young mother from Moscow, settled in rural North Carolina, unknown in the jazz world, connect with and eventually employ such a top-of-the-line list of jazz players to help her present her artistic vision? The guess here, formed after a phone conversation with the artist, a fearless directness combined with a guileless personal approach, a bit of friendly, low-key audacity, unwavering determination, and a justified confidence in the quality of the art she is creating.
2015 was a breakout year for Eckemoff. Two of her finest albums, Lionsand Everblue, both on L & H Records, came out that year—two all-star ensembles showcasing Eckemoff’s superior compositions and her themed approach to making albums. She continues in that tradition on Lonely Man And His Fish, music built around Eckemoff’s story about a retired orchestral trumpeter player (the lonely man) and his retirement present pet fish, Spark.
Trumpeter Kirk Knuffke plays the lonely man part; Japanese flautist Masaru Koga supplies the voice of Spark. The story, included in the liner booklet, has the feel of a simple children’s tale. Much of the music has a whimsical quality, with engaging melodies and complex, classical-like harmonies. Trumpeter Knuffke sounds quintessentially American, drawing from funk and New Orleans traditions; flautist Koga brings in the Eastern tinge, and the rhythm section—Eckemoff, bassist Ben Street and drummer Eric Harland—are impeccable and imaginative in their support and their embellishments to the story-telling.
The 2 CDs worth of music on Lonely Man And His Fish brims with joy and the exhilaration of creation. Eckemoff’s theme-based offerings take another step forward in complexity and positivity. What might be next for the pianist-composer? It is impossible to say; she follows her muse from pride of lions to nocturnal animals, from colors to wildflowers, from the desert to blooming tall phloxes—inspirations from unlikely places transformed into marvelous works of art.