Title: The Small and the Quiet of Yelena Eckemoff’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’

“Some hard music to record, fully composed, about 85 pages to read, 14 pieces,” Norwegian double-bassist Arild Andersen described of his Nocturnal Animals recording experience. Lots of pages, lots of notes, pre-destined in Yelena Eckemoff’s structured fashion, and yet, “It was great…somehow we sort of float on top.”

The classically trained, jazz-inclined Russian pianist and composer turned her musical sights to smaller things that go bump in the night in her upcoming Jan. 24, 2020 release on L&H Production. Eckemoff devotes 14 instrumental tracks — split in half, in a double-album — original artwork, and poetry to the dancers and prancers of the night: blooming cicada, tacky-sticky bat, walkingstick, fox, grizzly, rattlesnake, wolf, hedgehog, toad, lynx, scorpion, firefly in mating season, owl, and sea turtle, finding its last sea legs.

Nocturnal Animals plays small, in quiet, stealthy patter. The choice to go with double-bassist Andersen, who’s appeared on several of her past works, and two drummers, Jon Christensen and Thomas Strønen, blends well with the heartbeat of these animals that humans sense more often than see, and often, with fear and trepidation, if not wonder.

Eckemoff’s poetry feeds into the mythology and the science of each nocturnal creature. Her straightforward, vaguely romanticized descriptions seem factual, which then allows her to elaborate in more fanciful, presumptive language, putting us in the place of these featured night creatures for a spell.

The listener can both readily identify with what a firefly must be feeling during summer mating season, alight with promise, excitement, and hope, along with the biological rituals compelling these truths. How like them we are:

“Myriad attractive males are flickering their songs of passion;
Their chorus is so loud!
But I single out a special light; as it moves closer and closer,
I fix my eyes on the one whose light is of an especially tender hue,
And I fall in love at first sight.
I signal him with a flash of my belly, and I see that my feelings are shared.
Oh, how sweet it is to love and to be loved!
Oh, how fortunate I am to be able to drink the cup of life to the bottom!”
“Firefly” plays off that universal sense of wonder, relief, and first love in Eckemoff’s trickling, gossamer notes, as Andersen’s fluttering, darkened gaze moves the fireflies around in a world within a world out there under the evening gaze. Her touch on piano brightens and lifts, assuming fireflies’ pearlescent glow, swirled in effect under the double-bassist’s dowager gestures and, to a lesser extent, the percussionists’ subtly shimmering luster, stealing a mood.

“It is my prom tonight, my party time. I’ve waited long for this glamorous and exciting night, when I meet my groom and begin to live out my destiny.”
— “Firefly”
Eckemoff and her bass/percussive trio ease off from complete literal interpretation, save the recognizable lumbering of the Grizzly Bear in Andersen’s revved-up, deep and low bass.

Far from a sound effects album, there’s meaning beneath the notes, in the pre-determined pressure and lightness of beings in transit, in flight, trying to connect the natural world of nocturnal savagery under Eckemoff’s humanistic spell — their hissing crawlspaces, their dramatic, silent tension — with secret, noble, humane motivations.

There’s also a faint thread of melody weaving in and out, throughout. Not enough to hum a tune back and forth. But enough to experience what the cicada may upon awakening from gray to “white as a bride!” to “shiny black,” in the ultimate transformation from nothing to “beautiful creature.”

“Cicada’s” beautiful melody is short-term, lapsed, and hidden in satiny folds, captured with controlled tenderness in Eckemoff’s hands, and mirrored, vexed just as gently by bassist Andersen. Together, they stroke a cascading, give-and-take path for the young cicada to outgrow “grim underground tunnels,” out into the vast unknown on “sparkling translucent wings.”

Poignant inevitability underscores the last tune of the mother sea turtle, as she dares look back at the children she’ll leave behind to fend for themselves, and dares look forward to one more chance at spawning more “beautiful melodies, you, my dear offspring, will add much to the wondrous symphony of life.”

Eckemoff’s piano and Andersen’s bass walk along the shore, ripple into engorged waves, falling away in scintillating sheens of moon gloss — expressively refrained with cymbal curves. The piano-bass unite as a force, becoming stronger, leading the listener and the aging sea turtle away from stagnation and death toward one more stop, a “small rocky island” ahead. The journey’s long, and so is this final tune at well over eight minutes, but the small, sturdy ebb and flow, with sparkling piano, remains ever mesmerizing in its gradual ascent.

As Eckemoff lights this gradual ascent from darkness, she touches the eternal and the earthly with renewed purpose.