Title: Yelena Eckemoff humanizes jazz in follow-up to ‘Glass Song’

In America, Yelena Eckemoff is the new kid on the block. But the Russian pianist and composer plays as if she were born to the role of a jazz veteran. Born in Moscow, the classically trained musician soon found herself with activists hoarding the prohibited and valuable works of American jazz.

“Everything from the west was prohibited at that time,” she described, “and jazz was one of those things. But there was a jazz studio formed by some activists who were also professional musicians and we studied traditional jazz. I used jazz principles in my composing, which put me on a different path from other musicians.”

She eventually settled in the U.S. in 1991, where she focused completely on putting her memories and pieces of her life into a musical order quite different from anybody else. Musicians who’ve played and recorded with her have acknowledged the rewarding challenge in those differences.

Drummer Billy Hart, vibist Joe Locke, and double-bassist George Mraz recorded with Eckemoff on her upcoming album, A Touch Of Radiance, due out on August 12. Besides expertly melding jazz with her classical upbringing, Eckemoff humanizes jazz in the notes that mimic that of nature and people. Her style requires exact adherence to painstaking charts, with enough groove time to explore specific themes in each song. Her music plays beautifully, but also texturally and emotionally.

“She has her own thing — it is not a copy of another person’s music like you run into almost all the time,” marveled Mraz. “It was a challenge to flesh out these compositions of Yelena’s,” Locke said, “and I thank her for that challenge.” “Very rarely am I surprised like I am with Yelena,” Hart added. “Somebody that comes out of nowhere with this much maturity and experience and musicality. You don’t expect somebody that you don’t know to challenge you in such an enjoyable way. In a very euphoric way it was a very satisfying project for me.”

In their own way, each of the four musicians (tenor saxophonist Mark Turner completes the recording group) were asked to dive into Eckemoff’s world, touched by a loving childhood and a deep appreciation for nature’s ever-shifting forms. “The musicians helped me to paint my musical picture,” she described. “What made the project a success is that in addition to improvising brilliantly, all the musicians were extremely respectful to my written structures, tunes, and melodic lines. The combination of written and improvised music, as well as totally loose group improvisations has been my chosen musical language. With each new recording I am more comfortable with this language.”

A Touch Of Radiance continues Eckemoff’s tradition of humanizing nature through music, which she rendered so well in the quiet but reflective, Glass Song, from last year. In this upcoming album, which she plans to launch at New York City’s’ Jazz Standard August 12, Eckemoff expands her usual trio and gently guides her recording quintet into more of her childhood growing up in Moscow.

“I was an only child and I spent a lot of time alone with picture books. There’s a certain mood to this song that somehow connects me to a time when I was five years old, and was in my world of literature and images,” Eckemoff explained. Her new album represents that world of music in 10 original songs, literature — she wrote poems to accompany the songs, and imagery — her cover album is a painting she did of the sunset. The 70-minute album is accompanied by a 24-page color booklet featuring her liner poems and photographs of the process in the studio.

“I was ready to move on,” Eckemoff expressed. “My goals didn’t change: I wanted to express in music what I feel and what I experience. But utilizing more instruments gives your music a wider angle.”

Eckemoff used her musicians to render beautiful notes, but cadenced with an understanding of the myriad analogies of those notes, to be like actors and really get into their roles. Frequently, drummer Hart would do double-duty by playing the notes to forward the music, but to also reflect the subjects conjured up within each song, as in a movie soundtrack. Maybe his notes would replicate a person taking a stroll on cobblestone streets, or the sound a wood stove made as the fire lit and crackled. On “Affection,” Hart even asked Eckemoff “if I wanted him to be a little puppy or a big dog” for the song about her pet Desi.

Eckemoff carefully placed the songs in chronological order. “Inspiration” sets the tone, leaving wondrous, fragile notes as imagined by a child first daring to change the ominous effects of a dream. The playful vibes, the dramatic hilt of piano, hinting at a classical future, a double bass tip-toeing around jazz-heavy beats all call to mind a young girl’s promise, “I find myself at the piano with my fingers playing the keys. A bit exhausted from the journey, I play the last soaring chords before the quietness sinks in.” It is at once jazz, classical, and avant-garde in a movie soundtrack narrative.

The second song, “Reminiscence,” pays loving homage to a father who knew how to spark imagination and still a little girl’s fears when night fell, casting shadows that would appear as “creatures in the dark.” In her poem about the piece, Eckemoff wrote of her father’s appearance, “I met a rabbit on my way home. And look what a tasty treat he gave me for my little girl!” She captures the exuberance of her father and the calming effect he had on her when he finally arrived home after a long day through her piano composition, flecked with the gold of Turner’s warm tenor undertones, Locke’s locked-and-loaded vibes embodying a little girl’s fascination with “my small bed, mommy’s piano… My playground at daytime — covered with stacks of books and toys,” and Mraz’s bass tracking the sun’s path from the sky.

“Affection” goes from tender ballad to an ominous chord digression, constantly revolving. It is a song about her pet dog, Desi, and her fear that Desi would forget her once she went to city school “during the whole autumn semester.” The musicians used their instruments in a dire and rift to resolve the whole issue by the song’s gentle fade. Turner’s saxophone hits all the right dramatic notes to signify the puppy’s anguish at leaving its original family, and then Eckemoff’s uncertainty, as well as those warm moments playing together and learning tricks. Locke takes on the role of Desi on his vibes, playing with Eckemoff on the piano, as he lets his many notes tumble all over her spare, grounding ones exuding much strength, love, and care.

If “Reminiscence” is about a little girl’s dependence on her parents for protection and comfort, “Pep” is about that little girl all grown up having to be a parent to her own child. She transforms a life as mom into a snazzy, surefire, fairly fast-paced jazz modality with chords played in contrasting notes, always on the edge of a post-bop revolt — a perfect assault on all those “millions of chores to do while the baby is asleep. Even more — when he is awake. Washing and line-drying all day, cooking, mixing and warming up milk, feeding, playing with the baby, playing the piano…” The saxophonist and vibist feed into the frenzy, providing a musical caliber of those chores at that frantic pace, with the bassist marking time for the weight of a superhuman daily accomplishment. When Eckemoff trails off at the upper registers of those keys, barely holding on, and drummer Hart carves out a special percussive moment out of thin air, as “life is spinning from chore to chore,” it’s the best of bop-experimental.

Eckemoff can exude the best of melody and harmony in the most far-out experimental jazz. “Imagination” combines her expertise in classical-avant-garde with her love of jazz in the tones and textures of piano, horn, drums, and bass. She uses everyone in her recording band to stretch out the humanization of a winter snow scene — imagined on a hot summer day. That juxtaposition is her gift, and she applies it well to give another soundtrack to her imaginative childhood crossing over into a very adult jazz piece that seems to flow from one train of melodic thought into another. The very same juxtaposition is found in her liner poem: “We dance to the cheerful sounds of the crackling wood. And the loud purring of our drowsy cat. The brutal winds outside do not scare me when I have a refuge in his strong arms.” It can be scary outside, but inside, in her world, it is always safe and warm, and wonderfully alive.

One of the most poetic songs, “Tranquility,” epitomizes the artist that is Eckemoff. She matches the lyrical quality of the song with the lyrical poem accompanying it in her liner notes. “I hear the faint fluttering of the butterflies’ wings. Yet the gun shots are inaudible to my ears. I hear the fish swimming in the pond. But the moving cars are silent to me.” This speaks to her childhood of a loving family, a father who speaks in imaginatively poetic tongue, and yet, a homeland rife with tension, conflict, hard, brutal winters, and violent subversion. Because of such a childhood, Eckemoff is able to focus on the sounds — and the sights — that keep her world safe and warm.

This is reflected in the song, five minutes and 20 seconds of music blotting out encroaching storms with some of the loveliest interludes — at times revving to get going, as in the 52-second intro of soft crushing cymbals and sax. Eckemoff feels her way in shaky spurts that progressively grow more self-assured. Bassist Mraz shadows her, giving her additional strength and a direction forward. Vibist Locke provides the childlike, imaginative animation that once spoke volumes, and tenor saxophonist Turner reintroduces the jazz that sustained her, touching on the tenets of Coltrane on a sultry Blue Note night.

“I’m a sentimental person, but I don’t write sentimental music,” Eckemoff explained, laughing. “I know better. I’m an old-fashioned romantic. Feelings and emotions and of course nature are always what interest me, and I still believe in melodies.”

Yelena Eckemoff manages to impart a greater sense of herself in 10 short story tracks with a quartet of likeminded musicians. She touches on the jazz-classical-avant-garde, art and poetry, and a narrative that sees the human connection in every leaf, the passing flutter of butterflies, and a snowy day in the summer — radiant.