Suzanne Lorge for Downbeat
Title: Eckemoff Excels in Numerous Art Forms
WITH ADVENTURES OF THE WILDFLOWER, Yelena Eckemoff’s new release on her label L&H Production, the composer adds another voluptuous creation to her extensive oeuvre of nature themed works. This modern jazz song cycle—18 distinct pieces in all—depicts the life of a columbine plant, from seed to eventual death and rebirth. For Eckemoff, however, the symbolism of the columbine runs deep.
“The album is more than just a story of a plant—maybe it’s my own story, how I struggle with things,” Eckemoff said via Zoom from her home in Greensboro, North Carolina. “[There is] a choice that everybody has to make in this world. Am I going to be a mean entity or a kind entity?”
This dilemma takes on greater importance in light of last year’s many social crises, Eckemoff asserted, offering the new album as her own answer. “I want people to react the way the columbine reacts, to be more kind and understanding,” she said. “To help others and focus on the good stuff.”
Eckemoff delivers the good stuff here via three modes of self-expression: perfectly titrated music, smooth narrative poetry and charming impressionistic oil paintings. She consolidates these three efforts in one polished package comprising two discs and a thick, illustrated booklet—a rare presentation for an independent artist these days. “I want to emphasize that physical objects are not lost,” she explained. “We still want to read from pages—and it’s still important to have an album with a concept and [a full range] of expression.”
Eckemoff’s concept, both thematically and musically, was one of the draws for the gifted Finnish musicians on the recording. Vibraphonist Panu Savolainen, bassist Antti Lötjönen and drummer Olavi Louhivuori—all of whom had played on Eckemoff’s 2017 release, Blooming Tall Phlox (L&H)—rejoined the pianist on these subtly complex compositions, this time with saxophonist Jukka Perko and multi-instrumentalist Jarmo Saari on guitar, theremin and glass harp. Eckemoff makes deft use of these talents, assigning each sonic role carefully. Solo theremin delivers the wistful theme of “In the Ground,” the album’s opener. Saxophone is featured on the scattershot melody of “Chickens,” vibes on the somber sonorities of the folkish “Dying.” Theremin returns to that initial theme—backed by the ebullient sextet this time—on “Baby Columbines,” the final track.
Despite the program’s differing moods, each segment transitions easily to the next. The listener doesn’t need the poems or paintings to understand the thrust of this unfolding musical drama, but these complementary media enhance the music—and reveal just how profoundly Eckemoff immerses herself in the reality of her creations.
Born and raised in Moscow before emigrating to the United States in 1991, Eckemoff prefers the less visible role of conceptualist to that of stage performer. Even so, her self-produced recordings often feature high-profile players: During the past decade, she’s dropped more than 15 albums with guests like drummer Peter Erskine, bassist George Mraz, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Chris Potter and bassist Arild Andersen.
Award-winning composer Saari, who first played with Eckemoff in the Helsinki studio where they recorded Wildflower in 2019, describes what attracted him to her work. “I fell in love with the narrative, the visuals, the music,” he said. “Her music is so heartwarming and humane and beautiful. Also strong and deep philosophical, even. We’re talking about life and death.”
It was an article on plant communication in The Scientist magazine that triggered Eckemoff’s curiosity about how nonverbal beings might experience life and death. Ultimately, this curiosity provided the impetus for the album. “Plants communicate with each other, so we know that they have some kind of consciousness,” she said. “We don’t know how they feel. But they, too, probably feel pain.”