ZRussian-born pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff is known for blending Russian romanticism with the American jazz tradition. Nocturnal Animals is the latest in a long line of spellbinding concept albums that have rightly been defined as sonic portrait galleries. This latest double-LP, released via her own L&H Production imprint, offers 14 of her impressions of the world of the creatures of the night. The music of Nocturnal Animals was recorded in April 2018 in Oslo, Norway, and features three of that country’s most acclaimed jazz musicians: Jon Christensen and Thomas Stronen on drums and percussion, and Arild Andersen on double bass.
While most of her songs lean toward the ethereal, Eckemoff’s heavyweight band provides the impetus for urbanized jazz. On tenor saxophone, Chris Potter single-handedly muscles even finely textured tunes into the realm of aggressive forays. His approach is near-tart and rangy on the album’s title track and “Vision of a Hunt,” for the latter of which he switches to bass clarinet. On the Latin-tinged “Waters of Tsna River,” the versatile reedist conjures sunny vistas on soprano sax and even picks up his seldom-heard flute.
Eckemoff seems to encourage interpretive freedom in her talented sidemen. Guitarist Adam Rogers solos beautifully on reprieve from reading extensively written parts. Drummer Gerald Cleaver handily delivers on odd phrases and meters, masking any inherent complexities. As a pianist, Eckemoff’s feathery right hand and independent left manifest as a compendium of modern players, minus the swing element. Her melodic sense is strong, completing phrases that always sound pretty, in spite of adventuresome harmonic choices.
“Picnic in the Oaks” comes closest to a grooving swing piece, but the concept seems just beyond Eckemoff’s vernacular. In some ways, her approach is similar to Brubeck’s mathematizing, without the geometric angles. While bassist Drew Gress does his best to set up rhythmic patterns for more triplet-feel coercion, swing is a fleeting element here. Eckemoff’s many ballads are the highlights — bittersweet, poignant and searchingly nostalgic.
Pianist Yelena Eckemoff’s classical training in Russia certainly stands out on her “Flying Steps” CD, but so do the improvisational and interplay capabilities of her trio with bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz and drummer Peter Erskine. Any musician’s playing is, by definition, an extension of their personality. Russian pianist Yelena Eckemoff’s use of space, texture and harmony on her latest CD, “Flying Steps”, hints at a classical prodigy who earned her Master’s degree from the Moscow State Conservatory. Yet other elements, including her interaction with bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz and drummer Peter Erskine, lead the listener to the deeper parts of Eckemoff’s story. One gets the impression that the title of every composition has special meaning for the pianist. The disc’s opening “Promise” breaks from a relaxed swing feel into a tango accented by Erskine’s brush strokes on the snare drum; “A Smile” opens with the versatile drummer’s lonely taps on a cymbal before expanding through Oleszkiewicz’s perfectly-placed punctuations and Eckemoff’s lyrical lines. The temptation is to classify this as chamber jazz, yet the disc takes a detour every time it approaches such a classical-meets-swing hybrid. “Good Morning,” dedicated to Eckemoff’s son Anthony, veers from the precipice through high-pitched piano accents that hint more at gospel, or even electronica. On “For Harry,” her dedication to her husband, the rhythm section sounds like it’s eavesdropping for the first three minutes, but Erskine and Oleszkiewicz then kick into an assertive midsection that prefaces a stellar solo by the drummer — who’s been the rudder for some of the top fusion (Weather Report) and pop (Steely Dan) acts in the world. Eckemoff dedicates the waltzing title track to Erskine, and the poignant ode “Tomorrow” to Oleszkiewicz, to close the disc in true team fashion. “Flying Steps” is a democratic, ECM-inspired statement by a true jazz original, on which even the pianist’s sacred musical inspirations (she and her husband converted to Christianity and fled the former Soviet Union 20 years ago) and MIDI-enhanced virtual orchestra nuances occasionally fly by.