Pianist Yelena Eckemoff was born in Moscow. Classically trained, she also dabbled in jazz, but later put her musical life on hold to raise a family. Over 20 years ago, she relocated to the USA and has since produced instrumental and vocal music in a wide range of styles from folk and religious to new age and easy listening. She had to wait until 2009’s “Cold Sun” CD to make her mark in the world of jazz.
Lions is a two-disc set recorded in March 2013. The cover is from a fine painting depicting lions in the savannah, and each of the tracks is linked to a poem. The music, words and artwork are all by Eckemoff, and there is a clear relationship between the poems and the corresponding sounds. The leader is pitched alongside two titans: the Norwegian double bassist Arild Andersen and the American drummer Billy Hart.
At the beginning, the central character observes a young lioness: “How much I wish to be her!” but then the subject is transported – as if in a dream or a fantasy – on the wings of Migrating Birds (evoked by Hart’s flapping brushes) from human form to that of a lioness. Without delay, the lioness chases an antelope in Pursuit: “I leap and impart my kiss of death upon her venerable throat” and the tune ends with appropriate abruptness. Impressionism that evokes the lioness’s lifestyle and surroundings abounds. In Stars Bathing in Shallow Waters, the piano shimmers as she takes a drink from a pond in which the night sky is reflected. Surviving the Famine is about getting by in leaner times.
Many of the pieces may be through-composed, with minimal improvisation. Some have little thematic or harmonic development, and few swing in the conventional sense. Andersen is especially prominent and his gorgeous tone bursts to the fore on most tracks. Although in his element on Lions Blues, Hart is generally more impressive in the background where he provides texture and colouration. Eckemoff rarely grabs attention with bombast; her skill lies in conveying her ideas with care and understatement.
Sphinx is one of Eckemoff’s loveliest creations, yet the protagonist is locked in an unbearable limbo. “What use is it for me to be immortal if I am a stone statue?” she asks. There is a rare vigour to Joining the Pride, in which the lioness is buoyed by the support of her partner, but in an unexpected twist the lion is usurped by a younger model (“Oh my changing heart!”) Towards the end – during Ode to Innocence – the lioness asserts that “I am free from guilt,” and in the concluding Ode to Strength the storyteller is returned – again on a flock of birds – to the human world. She cannot surrender her other incarnation completely, and retains the lioness’s heart. It’s a charming concept, and very beautifully played.
The Yelena Eckemoff Trio (with Arild Andersen and Martin France) will play at Ronnie Scott’s on Apr 18 and will be at the Spice of Life on Apr 19th.