The title sounds more like a short story than a jazz album and it is indeed a narrative put to music. Russian-born, North Carolina-based composer and pianist Yelena Eckemoff has built her reputation on concept albums, whether it’s stages of life, colors, smells, seasons, or about such things as the ocean. She is also a poet and a graphic artist who develops the concept in her head and then composes the music, knowing full well how the story is supposed to develop. Lonely Man and His Fish is her 18th release since 2010, melding her conservatory trained classical upbringing with her improvisatory jazz approach, amidst a group of first call jazz musicians, the envy of any project. Her simple tale is a parable of sorts, outlined liner notes. A recently retired orchestra trumpeter finds comfort in a fish that he purchases and names Spark. They develop close comradery until a bicycle accident lands the lonely man, Tim, in the hospital. That sets off a chain of events, where Spark finds a new home in a nearby pond, unbeknownst to Tim. His trumpet playing, however, lures Spark back home.
Playing Tim is the redoubtable cornetist Kirk Knuffke, while Japanese flutist Masaru Koga takes the role of Spark. Keeping it moving are the renowned bassist Ben Street and in-demand drummer Eric Harland. Eckemoff is on piano. Rhodes, and vintage Ampli-celeste. Assuming you’re familiar with the very busy Street and Harland, you may recognize Knuffke as one the more notable avant jazz players. His 2022 trio album, Gravity Without Airs, was hailed by this writer and many others as one of the year’s best. Koga is likely best known for his work with Bay Area drummer Akira Tana’s Otonowa ensemble. We covered their 2019 Love’s Radiance on these pages.
Knuffke’s playing is very emotional and expressive, such that any one of these tracks could stand alone from the story but on the opening “Lonely Man” he certainly delivers a sense of isolation and desolation. Eckemoff’s solo is perkier and upon his return the cornetist plays more brightly too carrying excitement and curiosity into “Pet Store,” buoyed by the pianist’s rambling turn and the first example of unison lines between Knuffke and Koga before each delves into their inspired separate cries and wails. While their interaction on that piece is chaotic, it reaches beautiful moments in the ballad “First Evening at Home” and goes in a whimsical direction on the rhythmic “Breakfast for Two.” The contrast between the high-pitched, oft powerful cornet and the breathy, softer Japanese flute is crucial to the sounds Eckemoff envisioned for the two characters and it works wonderfully. Street’s electric bass lays a funky foundation for “Man and His Fish,” marking the first time Eckemoff has recorded on celeste. The exchange and interaction of the quintet here is among the best, among these evocative pieces. Eckemoff rarely dazzles but always seems to be in the right place, whether supporting the soloist, initiating, or extending conversations.
Without dragging you through the whole story, listen carefully to the subtle textural work of Street and Harland too, especially on “Into the Wild,” the urgent “Accident,” and in more delicate modes on “Empty House: and “Survivor.” By all means, don’t miss Koga’s brilliant soloing on “Life in the Pond” and Knuffke’s on the touching “Song for Spark.: The closer, “Dreaming Together,” is another standout example of the interaction between the two front line players – companionship personified through music.
Getting musicians of this caliber together for this inspired 2-CD project was essentially a can’t miss proposition but as one follows along with the story in the liners, it’s fair to say that all performed well beyond the call of duty. Bravo!