Title: Yelena Eckemoff Digs Into Another Language in the Muse Between Classical Jazz and the Arts
‘Adventures of the Wildflower’ traces the life of Columbine, connecting the human and plant species in this grand, subconscious collective
Moscow-born pianist-composer Yelena Eckemoff stretches her multi-media disciplines to better understand and translate in free-form longhand the world of Columbine, a wildflower who discovers — much like the human species above her — what it means to be alive, to reach out for the light, to make friends, and ultimately, make the ultimate sacrifice for her budding children. For “Adventures of the Wildflower” Columbine, Eckemoff joins with Finnish ensemble, vibraphonist Panu Savolainen, percussionist Olavi Louhivuori, soprano/tenor saxophonist Jukka Perko, guitarist Jarmo Saari, and double-bassist Antti Lötjönen. Savolainen, Lötjönen and Louhivuori appeared on her 2017 album “Blooming Tall Phlox.” Cover art: Yelena Eckemoff | Photography: Janne Nykänen (group), Lianna Slaughter (Eckemoff)
“I was moved to make this record as my answer to our turbulent times. I believe that nothing is more important than for all earthly beings to find a way to live together peacefully, next to each other in the same community. Characters of my story may have disagreements with each other, but in the end, they always find a way to co-exist together on the same plot of land.”
Russian pianist and composer Yelena Eckemoff brilliantly, painstakingly, and bravely tells the story of wildflower Columbine, from birth to death and rebirth, in a language we all understand — and it’s not her music. To get there, she has to make some broad, daring leaps and bounds, with an arsenal of other tools at her disposal, art, her secondary language and our first.
In the upcoming two-disc, 18-track, plant-based concept album (you read that right, 18 tracks), Adventures of the Wildflower (L&H Production) delves deeper than any of Eckemoff’s previous recordings to accurately, comprehensively capture in free-form longhand what it must truly be like as a plant initially mistaken for a weed, to grow among a living, breathing community of other plants, fungi, hummingbirds, and bees — much like the human species — and to die and regenerate nobly.
More now than ever, the multi-talented, Moscow-born artist needs her original paintings and plain-spoken, tender poetry to illustrate/translate in the human language what is going on in the plant world’s music. The music itself is involved, complex, alien at times — Finnish multi-instrumentalist Jarmo Saari shines in this regard on theremin, glass harp, and guitars — and definitely challenging (lengthy) for the average, pop-loving, straight-ahead jazz listener.
It has to be. Flowers, trees, and weeds do not speak to each other in English, or Russian. They have their own code, patterns, vibration, with which to communicate danger or togetherness. We, the listeners, must learn it, flipping back and forth from the music playing in our ears to the page showing us what is going on.
For the first time, arguably, Eckemoff steps off her lofty perch, gets down in the dirt, and releases some of her iron-clad-grip on the written material to really broaden her musical horizons, going from a few to myriad band members, to accommodate more diverse styles, sounds, and sensations with her five-piece Finnish ensemble (Saari, saxophonist Jukka Perko, vibraphonist Panu Savolainen, double-bassist Antti Lötjönen, percussionist Olavi Louhivuori). All to depict the Adventures of the Wildflower as accurately as her imagination and knowledge of plant science can carry her. And that is far.
“They were fearless in approaching my extensive lead sheets,” extols Eckemoff.
The tracks themselves carry on for quite some time, from four to nine minutes. Too long? That depends on how curious and interested, even obsessed, you tend to be about nature and our place in it.
What does it feel like to be born, to die, staring up at the light? What does being reborn mean? What happens to a soul when it no longer has company, family, a life to cling to? How does one learn courage, sacrifice, love?
Adventures of the Wildflower definitely takes its sweet time to answer, each well-thought-out track fragrant with crystalline sound-shapes, hints of rotating, revolving seasons…a sprinkling of spritely piano, the still vibration of Saari’s theremin, spreading, searching, Perko often taking lead on soprano/tenor sax to tell this microscopic, grandiose story.
“I was moved to make this record as my answer to our turbulent times,” Eckemoff explains. “I believe that nothing is more important than for all earthly beings to find a way to live together peacefully, next to each other in the same community. Characters of my story may have disagreements with each other, but in the end, they always find a way to coexist together on the same plot of land.”
Columbine may be a wildflower, but her life mirrors that of every human on this earth. She’s born, she learns from those around her, including the kind and wise Rosemary, her best friend, she makes more friends with the joking mushrooms that pop up now and then, and the shy, whispery weeds, she gets lonely, she find courage within to press on and encourage those around her, she dies, she lives (Columbines are perennial, if taken care of) on for her newborn buds.
The inclusion of Saari’s glass harp and theremin really distinguishes Columbine’s world within worlds — and this album — giving her an ethereal, magical, alien glow intrinsic to that complex plant language.
Columbine’s story is presented basically in two parts, or two discs. The first nine tracks play more as sound effects, as the baby wildflower begins to learn about the world around her through impressions, indescribable feeling. The last nine in the second disc give off a more musical, coherent vibe, with lots of hard-hitting, gnarly jazz interaction threaded in and out of avant-garde chaos.
On the opening track, “In the Ground,” where we meet Columbine as she awakens, the theremin makes itself very clear, imparting the willowy, ivy-growing sound of her growing out the first of her “tiny, white roots,” as well as signifying mystery in this universe, reminding you of a sci-fi alien flick. Perhaps, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” But offset, softened into dizzying, romantic classical-jazz by Eckemoff on piano, and echoed at points by double-bassist Lötjönen.
Eckemoff goes this way and that, swaying throughout the eerie, alien-scape that Columbine must navigate — breathing in life at first sight. Savolainen lifts the heaviness with his heavenly touch, symbolizing Columbine’s tender, beautiful spirit, quite literally awakening her, and brought forth up into the light by Eckemoff’s coaxing, almost hypnotic tones.
We know this, too, because Eckemoff supplants most of her concept albums with her original art and prose-poetry. She wrote a story in poetic parts, one for each track. “In the Ground” aptly describes Columbine’s birth, what we all go through when we are born — in lyrical words and succulent music.
“Then the Seed noticed that
Through the cracks above its bed
Glowed a faint, barely visible light.
A few times the light went away and appeared again,
Brighter with each return.
Sensing the pleasant warmth coming from the light,
The Seed began to swell with curious longing.”
Accordingly, Eckemoff and her ensemble play the notes of Baby Columbine’s literal experiences — sight, sound, movement — with nuances, shading, a light, light touch. They play the light in the darkness, the newness of life and all its strange, alluring wonders.
That is why the listener must be patient, and curious, as a bird watcher, or gardener, enraptured by nature’s slowly evolving awakening, discoveries.
“Germination” follows, as Eckemoff repeatedly draws upon an insistent cadence, notes marching forward, curiosity leading to action, and the growth of the first “strong pale-green shoot” piercing through to that light, and the “beautiful world…outside!” The insistence reappears after a time of dramatic extension that nearly sounds like a song. Very avant-garde, forcing you to follow the stirrings, lapses, and startling changes in sonic color — a fade to greying knock on wood — from a soundtrack of sound effects to a song dying to slip out of Eckemoff’s purposely loosening, trembling fingers, sleeking the jazz imprint.
There’s a strange, stirring ghost-voice rising up from the ground in “Weeding the Garden.” At first, you could swear it’s someone humming. Maybe the sound Baby Columbine hears as The Mistress comes around to pull her from the earth and throw her aside. But then, it sounds more like possibly, an intimation from the glass harp, wavering into and out of human understanding, as guitar and vibes begin niche-ing out melodic pieces that are woven together in Eckemoff’s hands. The third track feels more like the band members working out an improvisational jam session over a dismembered backbeat at a typical jazz show, the last Wow number to properly introduce each musician — front to back, from illuminating, pointedly-jazz bassist and wizening guitarist to drummer, vibist, and whatever unearthly treasures Saari digs up on his theremin and glass harp.
In between huge milestones are quiet, playful moments. “Dog Chasing a Mouse” frolics and rushes around in a sax-piano-vibe motif, as close to a jazz through-line as possible.
“Rain” provides a call-and-response, catch-and-release sensation, with pianist Eckemoff and vibist Savolainen repeating phrases off each other. Until, Eckemoff branches off into an all-too-brief bit of serendipity that is at once serious and flighty, skirting a bit of swanky jazz progression, befitting the drops of “jolly, bubbly-bouncy rain” that nourishes Baby Columbine, giving her a second chance at life.
“Chickens” is a bizarre piece of avant-garde literature, transcribed in janky chords, pieced off-kilter together to give you a sense of the characters living in the chicken coop, noisy and daft: “old Fussy Hen…trying to peck at Master’s hand when he came to collect the eggs,” “Another Mean Hen often snuck up on an unguarded egg, cracked and ate it,” “Hens…screaming at the top of their lungs” to avoid an Opossum. Perko’s supernatural soprano verbiage gets a workout here.
“Drought” wants to be a haunting, lyrical ballad, tripping cavalierly over itself into this fertile ballet, piano majestic rolling waterlilies in imaginary rolling tides, drifting, drifting, as the bassist floats in, trying to drum up a battalion on arid wastelands.
Lest you forget, Eckemoff masterfully melds her classical training with jazz lucidity in “Waking Up in the Spring,” the second tune off the second disc, pairing seamlessly with Perko on sax and Saari’s snaring, sizzling guitar riffs for a true awakening.
A bit of Columbine’s theme arises in “Butterflies,” as the wildflower blooms, realizing she is more than a discarded weed her Mistress plucked and tossed aside. She attracts her share of butterfly suitors, who ply her with compliments and “tickling…tender kisses.” Saari plays her blossoming into womanhood on glass harp/theremin, playing off that intrinsic vibrational frequency beautifully, making him and his unconventional abstraction feel right at home in Eckemoff’s magnified plant world.
An odd departure for the “Hummingbirds’” image, Eckemoff inserts a rush of them circling, floating, and bobbing around Columbine in the vibist’s bubbly notes. But then Saari enters with a bluesy series on electric guitar. This only serves to intrigue you even more, as Savolainen blows up the bubbly notes with something bigger, more concrete, as Eckemoff lays out a jazz current beneath it all, undercut and snazzy in latter spaces.
“Another Winter,” the second to last track on the second disc, gives us an intimate glimpse of what it must be like for all living things on the ground to fall into a hibernating slumber in the winter. You can hear icicles crackling with the sunlight making its morning appearance in the instruments, striking chords and memories…making for a nice, peaceful lullaby to bye-bye to.
The music, triumphant and pure, pure jazz, comes bursting through on the final track, “Baby Columbines,” wrapped around Perko’s saxophone-playing fingers, wrapping around these little wildflowers receiving the gift of life and giving their mother Columbine a renewed reason to go on for one more season.
Yes, Yelena Eckemoff’s new, two-disc recording takes some getting used to, takes some time to get through, and takes a different, intensive/extensive approach to the jazz/classical curriculum, broadening the spectrum of an immersive, concept album that refuses to skim the surface. One that might try most listeners’ patience, most of whom would simply walk on by for another round of Billboard’s Top 40 — dumbed-down, mantra-spouting eye candy.
But stay awhile. Take a seat, relax, sip some Earl Grey, and look, really look at the world within worlds, where we are not so different from Columbine and her earthly friends.
Adventures of the Wildflower comes out March 19, 2021.