What makes Yelena Eckemoff so compelling an artist is that her narratives draw you into their worlds with a mesmerising simplicity that tellers of fables like Aesop, the Grimms and – refusniks and naysayers notwithstanding – Roald Dahl. Pick any story by those narrators and read, then listen to one told by Ms Eckemoff and you will be spellbound with all concerned. Ms Eckemoff has – to my mind – a slight edge because she sets her tales to music and has a marvellous sense of orchestration to draw you further into her world [and that of the story] as if she were creating an operatic score sans the de rigueur aria.
If you [the reader] thinks that this sounds like hyperbole… well perish the thought and dive into the world of the Lonely Man and His Fish. Like the stories told by those mentioned above, Ms Eckemoff’s story is utterly beckoning and once you begin to be drawn into its narrative you are hooked until the proverbial end. What makes Ms Eckemoff so special is that she has a history of creating partnerships with her ensembles elevating them to new levels. This, of course, extends to individual musicians [and the ensembles] whose performances are elevated to a new level. Ms Eckemoff remains the principal character [in all her narratives] who – in turn – galvanises her musicians to create the intensity of a live concert – like a short instrumental pantomime.
This magical ability by the pianist and composer, who in the studio, generates this is not just for the microphones and her ear for orchestral colour is extraordinarily acute. First of all, her compositions reveal that she has a proximity with nature that is supernal. It’s almost as if, when writing, she literally takes the form each of the characters that she intends to give life to. Then withdrawing herself from her two-dimensional creations she regards them from a safe distance and begins to add the third and fourth dimensions, to sculpt them and – like a kind of later-day Geppetto – to bring them to life. This is the kind of magic that makes the Lonely Man and His Fish seem real; and come to life.
Now her genius for orchestration comes into play. On the recording in question, she sets up the narrative on disc one. Here the principal protagonist is the Lonely Man. He is “played” by Kirk Knuffke – or to be more specific – by Mr Knuffke’s cornet. For his part Mr Knuffke makes masterful use of the unique conical bore, more compact shape, and mellower tone quality of the instrument [and its natural transposition in B♭] to literally become the Lonely Man. Throughout the development of the story – and the relationship between that Lonely Man and His Fish an instrumental/narrative relationship develops between Mr Knuffke and his cornet [which is now the voice of the Lonely Man], and the other protagonist – that is The Fish, played – or voiced – here by Masaru Koga and his Japanese flutes.
The dramatic twist and turns takes place after the Lonely Man meets with an accident and ends up in hospital. Then, on disc two, the Fish begins an adventure of a lifetime as he falls into the hands of a nurse entrusted to care for him. Ms Eckemoff’s score is now turned over to Mr Koga and his bamboo flutes to voice the Lonely Fish who is – quite literally put through the ringer – by being taken out of the safety of his aquarium and dumped into a large pond. Mr Koga’s virtuoso performance – like Mr Knuffke’s as the Lonely Man – captures all the dramatic palpitating splashes – often jittery shimmies and a slithering dive into thick underwater weeds – in the misadventure of the hapless Fish.
Like Mr Knuffke’s performance on cornet as the Lonely Man, Mr Koga’s buoyant performance as the Fish in the story is magical both in the manner of which both musicians bring the character [of man and fish] to life. Through his deft use of orchestral colour Mr Knuffke can paint a dusky, impressionistic picture of backdrop upon which, with bittersweet wailing, his Lonely Man navigates his life. Mr Koga is tasked with recreating a much livelier character who bedazzles his lonely, almost wan looking patron and elevates his ordinary life swimming around his aquarium, then – as his fishy life takes a dark turn, the flutist matches every dramatic twist with a virtuoso performance to match.
If you approach this recording of Lonely Man and His Fish was a two-dimensional interaction between a human and an aquatic creature, perish the thought. Ms Eckemoff together with her harmonic and rhythm partners – the inimitable bassist Ben Street and drummer and percussionist Eric Harland – have set about to provide vivid atmospherics in which walks the Lonely Man, just as his beloved Fish enjoys the adventure of a lifetime. This may sound like a children’s story. But as with Aesop, the Grimms and Mr Dahl we now know there was never an adult who was not seduced by the adventure or found an important lesson to learn. The added dimension is the wonderfully written music and the ensemble’s cultured playing, deftly imagining the unfolding story. As always, Ms Eckemoff’s written word accompanies the music in a lavishly printed booklet – mimicking, in a way – an opera’s libretto. And, also – as always – in throwing herself and drawing her musicians into her world Ms Eckemoff pulls off another wonderful recording.
Music – Disc One – 1: Lonely Man; 2: Pet Store; 3: First Evening at Home; 3: Breakfast for Two; 5: Man and His Fish; 6: Accident; 7: In Hospital. Disc Two – 1: Into the Wild; 2: Life in the Pond; 3: Survivor; 4: Empty House; 5: Song for Spark; 6: Call for Friendship; 7: Dreaming Together
Musicians – Yelena Eckemoff: compositions, piano, Fender Rhodes Suitcase 73 and Musser Ampli-celeste; Kirk Knuffke: cornet; Masaru Koga: Japanese flutes; Ben Street: contrabass and electric bass; Eric Harland: drums and percussion.
Label – L & H [cd806 151-34]
Runtime – Disc One 41:47 Disc Two 45:32