Jack Goodstein for Blog Critics

In a music scene that seems to privilege musicians who fit into easily definable categories, identifiable genres, when that rare artist comes along who defies easy categorization, that artist might well find herself on the outside looking in. If it’s too difficult to define what she’s doing, the easy way out is simply to ignore her.

So when a musical power broker like iTunes identifies the latest release from pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff and her quintet, A Touch of Radiance, as “alternative,” while others see what she does as jazz (jazz perhaps touched with a classical feel) it becomes essential to define what seems to be going on in the album. And what is going on is a programmatic description of the composer’s emotional journey in a soundscape transfused with the varied elements of her musical vocabulary – jazz and classical. Like many a great musical piece, A Touch of Radiance is touched with literary inspiration, often from an outside source, often, as is the case here, from within. All 10 of the tracks on the album are accompanied by short poems written by Eckemoff and aimed at clarifying the composition’s programmatic intent.

“Inspiration” opens what is in effect a suite and serves as a prelude to the rest of the album. The almost mystical spirituality of the piece is a clear indication of what is to come. Running almost 10 minutes, it focuses on the sense of magic that produces art – the other worldliness of creation, as well as its role in the musician’s life. The “walking stones” that “form a pathway” through life, she realizes, “can be easily rearranged/Into the pattern of a piano keyboard.”

“Reminiscence,” Exhuberance,” and “Affection” take the composer back to her childhood, her joys and her fears, and they are all there in the poems as well as in the music. “Pep” finds the older woman, now a mother “Washing and line-drying all day, cooking./Mixing and warming up milk, feeding:/Playing with the baby,” but still “playing the piano.” “Imagination” looks to the wonder of a love even capable of finding joy in a blizzard, while “Reconciliation” and “Encouragement” look to the stresses that it must overcome. “Tranquility” develops the artist’s ability to tune out the world, while “Radiance” ends the cycle with the blissful joy of nature, the “daytime butterfly” which doesn’t try to “reach the sun” content with it lighting “her way to the flowers she feeds from.” In a sense, it is the daytime butterfly that is the true artist.

Eckemoff, who in the past has worked with a trio, has enlarged her ensemble which now has Mark Turner playing tenor sax, Joe Locke on vibraphone, George Mraz on double bass, and Billy Hart on drums. It is a tight group that seems to thoroughly buy into the composer’s aesthetic, and the result is a finely-tuned, unified album.