Carol Banks Weber for Festival Peaks
Title: Carousel begins: Yelena Eckemoff synthesizes music and ‘Colors’ for a lifetime
Russian jazz/classical pianist Yelena Eckemoff dipped into fiction to piece together a whole world of music and “Colors,” depicting the arc of a human life, complete with marriage, children, old age, and renewal.
Russian pianist Yelena Eckemoff turned to a bit of fiction for her next classical/jazz album, Colors [Feb. 22, 2019]. A prolific, meticulous, and imaginative composer, Eckemoff stuck to the bare essentials for her next impressionist work of art: piano composition and poetry, with French drummer Manu Katché quickening the rhythm of life.
The 14-track instrumental album covers the stages of a human life through colors and music, and the feelings and images they evoke. Eckemoff’s fond of humanizing elements outside herself, finding reflections in nature and animals.
But this time around, she stays out of it — other than performing her original pieces on piano with Katché surround-sounding her on drums. Sparked by a bleak period in her own life, Eckemoff went about composing both music and poetry, as well as art for her CD booklet, to depict “Colors as stages of life.”
The “concept came to me when I was considering what to write about white color,” she explained in a recent email. “Instantly, white associated to me with hospital, milk, snow, and a blank canvas. I thought that all these images fit with the birth. But yet, the concept revealed itself to me in full when one night. I went to bed alone, feeling kind of down both physically and mentally, and as I buried myself into the covers and pillows, in complete darkness, seeking a hiding place from my broken heart and sorrows, it came to me that it should be a relief someday just to slip into soothing darkness, away from the burdens of life. And the concept of colors as stages of life between birth and death was complete in my mind.”
Eckemoff informed the compositions with what she did know from her own life — giving birth to children, watching them grow, taking care of her aging parents. But Colors is meant to be universal, so every listener, any listener can see himself/herself in the musical colors.
Colors is more than a contemporary melting pot of fine jazz and classical music, perfect piano pitch, artful, tempestuous variations, impeccable, spacious articulation, seamless transitions — although it is all that.
The album is less about listening for notes and timing, and more about feeling. With the first rendering of the first track “White,” you’ll immediately feel what it’s like to be born, fresh and new.
“Still, I did not want to write about my own life, especially [in] that I have not gone yet through its later stages. Instead, I took some things from my own experience and borrowed other details from my general knowledge of a woman’s life and from my experience with my parents who I took care of in the later stages of their lives.”
Eckemoff introduces that new life against the initial backdrop of an almost Motown-funk backbeat, provided by Katché — buffered by her voluminous one-woman orchestra. You’d think she’d go spare and slow, a barely-there whiff of “White” to match the tiny little human, in delicate, measured strokes.
Instead, she opens up a world of music from the very beginning — a bountiful, full-bodied welcome into the world — while keeping the newness and wonder tucked inside crevices here and there, in Katché’s Butoh-post-modern style drumming, and tempered by her own diminishing, flourishing notes.
Katché introduces himself quite memorably on “White,” the beginning of life in the eyes of a newborn, where everything is clean and fresh and, well, white:
“White ceiling, white walls,
White scrubs of the nurses,
White swaddling clothes;
Buzzing fluorescent lights inside the room,
And silent snow flurries outside;
Creamy milk — your first food,
An elixir of life…”
Any drummer can bring the heat. Dance rhythm comes naturally to the instrument. It’s tempting to go there, play to the crowd. Eckemoff opens up “White” immediately, walking her newborn’s curiosity in the tentative selections on her piano, as Katché slides into an easy crowd-pleasing R&B groove. But then, he begins to match her free jazz over the halfway point, closing in on the notes, fusing some of them together for a jarring effect, seemingly going off-script, a whirling, ponderous mass, defying gravity as the roles reverse and the musicians switch places, Eckemoff keeping her own mood-ovulating time.
In keeping with Eckemoff’s auditory impressions, here are a few more of mine:
“Blue” opens with traces of Sara Bareilles’ adult contemporary hit, “Gravity,” operating on a fragility almost too much to bear, understandably endearing, a musical lighthouse adrift at sea. But all traces of Bareilles’ “Gravity” disappears when Eckemoff slams on the Turkish mosaic in boisterous tones, then examines a few remaining notes at her disposal — before melting them away in esoteric terms…a private recipe of child’s play, referring possibly to her poem, where a mother imagines her child’s delighted outburst over her own “favorite childhood toy, a metal humming-top, causing it to spin | At full tilt as it loudly sings the expanded C-major triad.”
“Red” churns with what sounds almost like a fully formed melody from one of those adult contemporary pop tunes everybody’s raving about from Lady Gaga. In fact, Eckemoff does it better. She pours so much life into every punctuated note, soft and sharp, feminine and masculine, effervescent and angular, perhaps mirroring the love and lust of a young couple out on the town, a woman who gave birth, yet still finds herself attractive and vibrant to the world, attracted lustily to the father of her child.
“Red” is a composition steeped in the laws of attraction, and about feeling cherished, pregnant with possibility.
Halfway through, Eckemoff catches the listener’s ear with this bit of rolling thunder in a kind of seductive display, a mating ritual. The drummer can be heard underneath Eckemoff’s elaborate grandstanding, grinding out a rhythmically intoxicating beat — keeping time yet keeping company. Alone, this part would sound fine, a solo of adventuresome, restless movement, time out of mind. But with Katché stoking the fires, the movement sounds complete, branching off from the exclusivity of a starched-white classical, sit-up-straight listening jazz situation, to anything-goes street dance.
For “Yellow,” the pianist ruminates on fully-formed notes that are loaded with context, in a cavalcade of ideas the way yellowed leaves bend and fall from grace, the setting for this composition. Eckemoff mimics the falling, fallen leaves on her piano (and her Walt Whitman-worthy poem), equating them with a person’s “sluggish steps,” the lethargy of advancing middle age:
“Your sluggish steps produce crunchy sounds, even though, strangely,
You feel as if you are shuffling through yellow water.
One by one, or several at a time, dead leaves detach themselves
From the branches and start falling. Their lethargic, uneven
Descent to the ground has a hypnotic power over you.
Your eyes follow each leaf’s first and final journey
From the mother tree down to the ground.”
“Yellow” rests between the spaces, conjuring up snippets of spicy funk in rolling, lazy piano, snatching up momentary anticipation that seems to permeate the album, leaving plenty of room to play around in a deceptively improvisational manner, where anything could happen at any moment.
The leisurely, browsing stops and starts match an elderly person’s walk through a park in the poem, moving slowly, deliberately, with sudden moments of bewilderment, even clarity, as she matches memories of her youthful past to the future ahead in the “dry yellow leaves” she thinks of putting “between the pages of her books” just like her mother used to. The pace also matches the falling dead leaves abandoning their youthful promise.
“Aquamarine” rises and falls on anticipation, very classical, very tender at times, gingerly probing, yet going nowhere. The composition builds on the power of memory, as a mother returns to the ocean, where she once took her children (now presumably grown) and confuses the past with the present in the “elated squeals and chatter” of little boys not her own.
It is a blissful, yet wretched confusion, as depicted in the haunting illusion of melody buttressing up against harmonic, tempo changes.
“A sharp desire to jump up and run to them pierces you like a needle.
‘Wait — I can’t run at my age, so they can’t be my children, you old fool,’
You admit to yourself and chuckle. Involuntarily, your eyes fill
With sentimental tears as you recollect how excited your kids were
When you brought them to the beach for the first time.
Every shell, even a broken one, was a treasure to them…”
“Brown” ushers in more of a sweeping R&B jazz feel, like a bat spreading its wings before landing; she pushes harder on the notes for a banquet effect, letting the echoes spray and spread out in a dramatic flourish. Lots more contrasting, cranky notes that resound with a metallic clash.
“Black” starts off dark, running in a loose circular pattern we recognize intrinsically as a part of the human race. We can feel Eckemoff taking stock in the way she runs her hands through a certain set of keys, the way we run through our stock mental photos of good and bad times, while holding onto the ones we love very much. Her fingers fly in bursts of explosive energy, then linger on a few notes, sitting very still.
Her accompanying poem hints at the inevitable ebb and flow in this circle of life:
“Out of the blackness
Vivid dreams will come,
Dreams that will bring back the good times of your life,
The very memories of which escape you now…
Another pink morning will light up;
It will dawn through your veiled eyelids;
And then will descend upon you,
Sparkling with diamonds,
Eckemoff plays a musical version of those memories, the hope of another chance to see the “pink morning,” “sparkling with diamonds,” the juxtaposition of white and black, light and dark.
Before any return to “White’s” renewal of life, one must endure the pain of death. Many people who’ve had near-death experiences, or who’ve been a bedside witness to them, report that they’ve seen flashbacks of a life well-lived — the highs and lows, loved ones left behind. Eckemoff captures those flashbacks in the arc of her poetic instrumental. She ebbs and flows, rushes and weans, stirs the pot until there is nothing but a memory of the music and the feelings left behind.
This album kept me company on many restless nights, thinking about my own life and death. It is another thoughtful, kind, and imaginative play on music, poetry, and art — one rarely visited.