Russian jazz-classical composer Yelena Eckemoff forces you to listen with every new album she leaves behind. Hers is an original, unusual multi-media campaign — designed solely to immerse all listeners in a world where every sense is engaged, coming alive with immeasurable empathy, and thus, understanding.
On her newest album, Leaving Everything Behind (L&H Production), Eckemoff again writes poetry for each of her 11 original compositions — most written before American modern jazz heavily altered her classical, Russian upbringing. She also contributed her own art for the occasion.
Everything adds to that full immersive effect so that you not only feel what you hear in her music, but you are there with her in the mini-stories she tells, maybe even holding her hand, going through the same emotions. The pianist holds nothing back in the music, transforming tragedy into luminous wonder. In her prose, however, she waits on her moments patiently, like that precious mushroom she writes about in the midst of leaves and fallen rain.
The subject matter deals mostly with her literally leaving everything behind, harkening back briefly to her time growing up in Moscow, visiting her grandparents in Tambov on her own personal “Love Train,” escaping the hardships and tyranny of man-made conflict for dubious freedom in America, leaving her children behind, and escaping the man-made entirely by going off into nature.
But the tone is very Russian, very stoic, noble, and full of hope. Eckemoff would not be faulted for dissolving into an emotional mess, especially with all she’s gone through. Yet, she chronicles the premature death of her sister “baby Anna” a day after childbirth, the death of her beloved, generous grandfather, her toddler “stretching his little hand, crying, ‘Mommy!,’ [her] older boys [as they] kept silent and serious, watching their parents leave…” all of it with a matter-of-fact survival mechanism to ponder over later, in her voluminous music.
She pours all of her emotions — the unspeakable grief of crushing disappointment and loss, the courage and fear involved in surviving impossible, often socio-political situations beyond her control — into the music, with three extremely empathic musicians. Violinist Mark Feldman, drummer Billy Hart, who’s appeared on her previous recordings, and double bassist Ben Street join Eckemoff on piano to flesh out what the haiku of her poetry cannot say.
There can be no other beautiful accompaniment than Feldman lyricizing a mother’s broken heart on violin, while the Moscow State Conservatory-trained classical pianist carries the dark, almost discordant march of time keeping her from her children since the day she and her husband boarded a plane for America in 1991. (It wasn’t for long. They’ve since reunited, and are happy now.)
Eckemoff’s art, poetry, and music are so indelibly entwined that it would be foolish to try to listen to this album without first looking and reading. Doing so will enhance the immersive experience until you are smiling uncontrollably, hit with an incredible urge to cry like a baby, or filled with a compulsion to go out into the nearest woods and just walk around exploring nature, preferably with Leaving Everything Behind playing on your iPod.
“Prologue” will break your heart into a million pieces. Through words and music, Eckemoff and her band weave a soundtrack for the soul, putting the listener in the exact spot she was once when her mother told her she’d soon be playing with a baby sister, juxtaposed with watching her grandfather in his workshop “selflessly putting his skillful hands to use for everyone who needed his help.”
And then, happiness crumbling before her very eyes: “A healthy girl was born one month premature, and died a day later from unknown reasons, likely due to the neglect of the medical staff, I cried for several days, not able to accept the loss…,” seeing her grandfather’s lifeless body, “his dear hands stiffly crossed on his chest, and just the soft grey hair on his sleepy head gently shifting in the drift from the window.”
The “Prologue” takes all of three minutes, reduced to a small, spare moment — as is characterized by most of these compositions — defined by Hart’s ominous percussive rumbling, cymbals softly clashing in foreboding, Feldman’s sad violin, Street’s bass serving as perhaps the immovable hand of fate, and Eckemoff running through the pages of her youth touched by pain.
When she’s not trying to capture the feeling of life, love, and loss from that dark period, without going too far astray, she’s back to her favorite topic, the link between nature within and without — ultimately, her escape, her salvation.
“Rising From Within,” “Mushroom Rain,” “Coffee & Thunderstorm,” “Spots Of Light,” “Hope Lives Eternal,” and “Ocean Of Pines” cover her fascination with nature and her place in it. She catches snippets of what it must sound like to walk on volcanic earth, hear the ocean pounding the surf, woodland animals scavenging for their next meal, the crunch of leaves and pines as the sun struggles to peek through.
But she also inserts herself into nature, letting a wild imagination loose, just as her piano notes grow from tentative to sure, wandering with a purpose in her step on “Mushroom Rain,” picking out a “beautiful King Bolete” (is that Feldman picking at his violin in response?), and then, in Eckemoff fashion, wondering and waiting for her own mushroom rain to bloom.
With all of the quartet’s instruments at play, Eckemoff gives rise to the voicing in the accompanying poem, “If I could gather enough of his patience, if I could save enough of my strength, I, too, could escape my daily grind and rise skyward, where are you, my mushroom rain?”
On top of all that, Eckemoff’s music is everything modern jazz should aspire to be: deeply musical, complex, technically apt (“Ocean Of Pines,” an eight-minute, sensory ballet of movement and feeling, is made up of waltz, rubato sections, in 4/4), exquisitely touching, and — this is her trademark — existential at the same time.
“Traditionally, jazz is about extensive improvising on what might even be a simple tune. What I’m doing is taking more charge of the outcome. I provide a comprehensive, carefully thought-through musical framework, based on the important melodic material, and share with performers my sentiments about what each piece is meant to express,” Eckemoff explained in a DL Media press release. “At the same time I leave much space in this framework for the creative reading by each band member, as well as the band as a whole. When we start playing together, each band member brings a personal interpretation of the music material, and sometimes the outcome evolves away from what was initially intended. The improvisational parts, both structured and free, add a strong element of unpredictability, and also the interplay between band members often takes the music in a new direction.”
Yelena Eckemoff and her band will take Leaving Everything Behind in new directions 6 p.m.-7:15 p.m. Thursday at New York’s Birdland. Double bassist Joe Martin and violinist Mark Feldman will join her in the CD release party. Every guest will score a free album from Eckemoff’s discography.
By Carol Banks Weber for AXS 6/3/16
Yelena Eckemoff worries the music on her new album might come off as emotionally overwrought. The classically trained Russian pianist and composer tends to make the listener draw his/her own conclusions from the existential, naturalistic music. But Leaving Everything Behind hit closer to home, too close for comfort.
Previous albums dealt with lions at play, fond memories of life growing up surrounded by nature and loving family in Russia, a gentle rain hitting the window, things outside Eckemoff’s control that she gently, lightly humanizes in an overall philosophical musing in instrumental form.
Leaving Everything Behind goes deeper, into a dark time when Eckemoff lost a baby sister shortly after birth, saw her beloved grandfather’s still body in his workshop, and left her children back home in Russia to find a new way of life with her husband in America. These things hurt. They leave a mark.
Eckemoff refrained from writing about this time until she could view the emotional carnage from a safe distance, enough to sound coherent, reasonable, and yet still compelling.
She also brought in avant-garde, jazz violinist Mark Feldman, a musician of such sensitivity and depth — the absolute right choice to carry her grief without taking it too far into a maudlin soap opera. The choice was also surprising, given Eckemoff’s aversion to the sound of violins, which can admittedly tend toward the very emotional manipulation she has strived to avoid in her musical career.
The entire album is the perfect balance of the head and the heart, while telling painful stories about a love that suffers losses and yearns to thrive again in the paradise of hope. Leaving Everything Behind weaves breathtaking original music with an almost spare, Japanese haiku of accompanying poetry and an impressionistic residue in the album artwork — all created by Eckemoff.
Yesterday, she gave an interview exclusively to AXS about turning her troubles into self-expression on an album that works both as a technical marvel and an emotional catharsis. She even let slip plans to make a vocal album!
AXS: What is the one thing you’d like for listeners to take away from your new album, Leaving Everything Behind?
Yelena Eckemoff: Emotional charge.
AXS: What is the one thing you’d like people to know about you, as an artist?
YE: With my art, I do not seek to amuse, nor to follow any trends; I hope to provide nourishment for the soul.
AXS: You seem to be overflowing with ideas for new albums and new songs. How do you work, in terms of recording such a prolific amount? Do you already have the next concept for an album in your head while you’re working on another one?
YE: I always have between two and four different projects simultaneously in different stages of development. I try to make progress with each of them as much as I can every day. It is hard work that keeps me vigil many a night, but I would feel purposeless and empty without it. I constantly set my goals, prioritize, and stay focused to be able to meet the deadlines. Outside of my teaching, housekeeping, and family, I spend the rest of my time working on my music productions. I have learned to be pretty efficient. It helps that I don’t travel much, so I can spare more time for my creative work.
AXS: What brought on Leaving Everything Behind? Was it too personal to delve into right away? How long in the making was this album?
YE: At least 20 years passed since my immigration before I started to feel that it would be okay to share this part of my troublesome past with my listeners. All the tunes I used were composed either in my youth or later on, after the immigration, when the nostalgia was still painfully raw.
AXS: Plus, you had to update your earlier, original works, since you’ve amassed so much more experience and knowledge about modern jazz as a part of your classical repertoire.
YE: Naturally, the older music material had to go though some changes and improvements. Using violin as a solo instrument was almost a revolutionary choice for me, not having ever been a big fan of violin [laughs]. However, for this project, I felt strongly that the sound and expressive capabilities of violin would be the best match possible for emotions I felt, like a knife cutting though old scars and yet still drawing some fresh blood.
AXS: How would you say this new album differs from previous ones, because they’re all a personalization of your innermost feelings and thoughts in outward form?
YE: First difference, the scores were more detailed, with more notes to read. At the same time, there were lengthier than usual open sections of free group improvisation. Second, the music is overall more dramatic, passionate, energized, as compared to some of my more relaxed and observant albums, such as Cold Sun, Glass Song, Lions, and Everblue. And finally, this project was the most difficult one to write the poems for, because the very concept presented much risk to come out melodramatically, rather than deeply personal.
AXS: Your own departure from the Soviet Union inspires much of this new album. It’s a harrowing, traumatic story of a mother and father who had to quite literally leave everything behind, including their children for a time. How hard was it to capture the emotions involved in the music?
YE: I had the best help possible through the most sensitive violin playing of Mark [Feldman], who managed to capture all the tender nuances of my stories. I think Mark plays on this album so patiently and sweetly that my own piano playing sounds to my ears almost colder than usual [smiles]. Likewise, Billy Hart, who had previously worked with me on Lions and A Touch of Radiance, added to the warm palette of this album through his passionate and colorful approach to drums. Finally, [bassist] Ben Street really liked and respected the music. You can really hear it in his playing. Every band member contributed to the inner passion of the music, and tracking of this album was stress-free: I have used first takes for just about every track. Everyone felt so in tune, to the point that after recording the last track, Billy stretched his hands and said to me, “Yelena, this is your perfect quartet.”
AXS: This sounds like a dumb question, but what made you want to leave your home and your family in Russia to live in the U.S.? Why risk so much, leaving your children behind temporarily, to start over in a brand new country?
YE: We were young when the USSR was falling apart. With the old system of beliefs collapsing around us, we were looking for something to lean on. Our immigration was in a way a spiritual quest. We had such a strong drive to leave our home country and such a conviction that we will succeed in our ways, that none of the obstacles and pitfalls could neither discourage, nor stop us.
AXS: What is the story behind “Love Train?” It’s one of the most upbeat pieces in the new album, and does kind of mirror the O’Jays’ pop-soul version from the ‘70s in the hustling percussive beats in the background of those sorrowful strings.
YE: I have never heard the O’Jays’ song until you mentioned it, but I don’t think this disco song is in any way similar to my “Love Train” (except in title). My song is about the joyful sound of the train ride I loved so much in my childhood. But this joy is mixed with my nostalgia (string melody floating over).
AXS: The poetry you also write to accompany the music elaborates on the backstory further. But it seems you’ve placed the underlying emotions in the music, to let the listener feel his/her own way through your shared journey. Have you ever thought about writing a book of poetry, or putting together a book of your art (which also accompanies this album)?
YE: Jazzwise magazine (UK), in a review of my Lions CD, even called me a “multimedia artist.” I would not go that far, since I don’t consider myself to be a poet or a painter. These two arts have always been just hobbies, my amateur efforts; even though, I can’t deny that they both come from my heart. My art/paintings and poetry that accompany my records starting with Glass Song (2013) are intended to help people get deeper inside of my album concept and to emphasize the sentiments that I express in my music. Frankly, the idea of publishing a book of my art and poetry has never crossed my mind. I do have to mention that my great-grandfather was a well-known, Russian impressionist painter Pyotr Myagkov (1870−1943). And my grandmother told me I paint in the similar style.
AXS: How much of this new album, and in a broader sense — your compositional style — uses modern jazz and classical music? How does each style shape your music?
YE: In my composing, I don’t draw a line between the styles — this is all organic, whole to me. Free and structured solos serve for me as an extension of the melodic structures, the vital part of them. Also, I often suggest written material for one musician to back up the improvisatory approach in the parts of other band members. Along comes the anticipation that a sudden new twist brought up by a band member may turn everything topsy-turvy, and this is one of the most fun parts of the whole process of creating a living, breathing, and changing musical composition. As a composer, I firmly believe in the direction of jazz dissolving into classical, and vice versa. I believe this is the only open road ahead to the 21st century composer.
AXS: It’s hard for many artists to pick and choose favorite songs. It’s like picking a favorite child. But if you could, what songs worked out better than you’d hoped, and even elicited surprising emotions out of you during the recording process?
YE: The title song of this album has quite a history. The first part of it I composed when I was 16 years old. At that time, I was much into rock music. The rest of it was composed when I was in my early 20s after I started digging into jazz. In 2000, while working solo in my MIDI studio, I used this song as a base for a stretcher piece, “Return to the Land of Israel,” on my CD, The Birth of Emmanuel. (Now you can understand the reference to Jews leaving Egypt in my poem for that track.) In 2003, I cataloged some of my early tunes in two albums of Piano Chronicles. I recorded this song on piano under the current name of Leaving Everything Behind. A few years later, while leading my local band in North Carolina, I adopted this song for our ensemble and we played it (with an oboe and cello) on some gigs. Then the song fell into oblivion for several years, until I conceived the Leaving Everything Behind project after I recorded Everblue in the fall of 2014. In fact, my idea to use violin for the whole project as the most matching-to-the mood instrument was strongly suggested by this song. This song also defined the album’s concept. This song has a special place in my heart, and I think it came out most beautifully — even better than I expected — on the record.
AXS: How much of an influence were the other musicians on your music? You have some amazing players helping interpret your dreams, drummer Billy Hart, bassist Ben Street, and violinist Mark Feldman, who really captures your Russian origins.
YE: Of course every musician played an important role in the finesse of the outcome, but obviously Mark was a crucial figure on this record. I will say more, I am not sure I could have made this album the way I desired if it was not for his great contribution.
AXS: You probably already have another album up your sleeve. Care to give a preview of that one?
YE: Next year, I am releasing a very fine record I made in Finland in the fall of 2013 with Verneri Pohjola on trumpet, Panu Savolainen (HERD) on vibes, Antti Lötjönen on bass, and Olavi Louhivuori on drums and percussion. This is a double CD. There I attempt to express musically some of my favorite smells! It is called, Blooming Tall Phlox.
Later this year, I am recording with the largest band that I ever had, and — I will let you in on a secret — it will have vocals. I hope to release this new project in 2018