Title: Yelena Eckemoff discovers time travel ‘In The Shadow Of A Cloud’
“In The Shadow Of A Cloud” is the third in a string of memories-based jazz-classical music, and the 11th concept album from prolific Russian pianist and composer Yelena Eckemoff.
Classically trained, Moscow-born pianist Yelena Eckemoff records her most polished jazz album to date, threading an undeniably mystical and melodic spirit throughout her Aug. 4, 2017 release, In The Shadow Of A Cloud on her own L&H Production label.
She gathered together a brand new batch of sidemen to flesh out fond memories made back in Russia, where she is originally from: Chris Potter (tenor/soprano sax, flute, bass clarinet), Adam Rogers (electric guitar), Drew Gress (double bass), and Gerald Cleaver (drums). This is their first time playing together.
The 14-track, original double-album continues where Eckemoff last left off in a series of instrumentals that tries to capture the feeling of her childhood and her loving Russian family through classical-jazz music.
As with her previous releases, Eckemoff augments her original compositions with her poetry (28-page track list) and her art (the bucolic album cover), plus black and white family photos.
In The Shadow Of A Cloud features Eckemoff’s classically enhanced lyricism and nimble, oftentimes surprising jazz gravitas woven in layered, high-brow, high-standards interplay.
Following Eckemoff’s train of thought — a mixture of womanly intuition, exquisite sensitivity, keen attention to detail, a bit of mysticism, and an intrepid sense of adventure — can be challenging, even for the best sidemen in New York. Musicians must follow her charts as written, invoking her truest intentions while subtly infusing their own signature. The four men on In The Shadow Of A Cloud definitely achieve that objective in spades.
“The session went extremely well. Yelena has some very idiosyncratic music, very evocative, and it was a real pleasure to play it, especially with her and these other fine musicians,” Cleaver described.
Potter added that the “music itself awakens a feeling, and that seems to be the center of where she is approaching music from, which I like a lot.”
“Yelena’s music is quite beautiful and really unique. It’s different from a normal jazz record because it’s more through-composed,” Rogers elaborated. “But I wouldn’t describe it as being a ‘classical-jazz’ hybrid record, because it sounds more like she’s assimilated these influences and is expressing them in an already very processed way; processed in a really good way.”
Together, the quintet plays some of the most jazzy music of her classically steeped career. There’s more jazz in this album than all of her others combined.
Usually, Eckemoff sounds as if she’s tucking in bits of jazz here and there, as will fit — an arch classical motif is suddenly cut through with a brilliant counterpoint that almost mirrors something in a nifty hard bop without going all the way, riding the line between straight-ahead and experimental.
But In The Shadow Of A Cloud pulsates with in-your-face jazz, jazz solos, jazz elaborations, Chris Potter’s strong jazz vigor, Drew Gress and Gerald Cleaver’s bass/drum reiteration, Adam Rogers’ contemporary jazz fusion — with classical fringes.
Potter punches up “On The Motorboat” from the first disk on his straight-ahead-sounding sax, circling the main crux of Eckemoff’s tricky flickering piano asides. Then, Rogers burns through a first-time fusion feel on his electric guitar for the most delicious tease before Eckemoff returns with Cleaver to seemingly blow up the bop for a slight, free jazz detour. The tune contains hefty chunks of straight-ahead jazz, jazz fusion, and free jazz over a barely veiled melody roundabout resting underneath, with that trademark classical flourish-finish.
It’s really kind of clever and cool how each member of Eckemoff’s Shadow Cloud recording band comes in and out of focus, in and out of the spotlight — without taking anything away from the main event, the woman driving the show and telling her stories.
Another welcome aspect is the memorable, almost pop-feel of the musical threads in a lot of these tunes, none better than the opening, title track. Again, Potter leaves an indelible mark on his tenor sax, catching the ear immediately on a catchy melody that traces the opening of almost every romantic introduction in a smooth jazz fusion debut. Eckemoff takes over, her classical influence building stacks of volume and heightened drama. As Potter repeats the melodic refrain, guitarist Rogers and bassist Gress riff off its lingering notes with their own.
The hard-hitting jazz and Eckemoff’s catchy, highly evocative musical themes almost make me forget that there’s a concept here about the North Carolina-based bandleader’s earlier memories of time gone by with her family back in Russia (she and her husband emigrated in 1991).
The song titles and the accompanying track poems remind me of the beloved people in Eckemoff’s life, along with the musical equivalent of a memory montage of how these loved ones made her feel as a young girl. Eckemoff’s able to translate what it felt like to be out there in the “Fishing Village,” trying to be quiet for the fishermen “staring at their floats,” walking trails along the “Waters Of Tsna River,” swimming, making “Acorn Figurines” with Mommy, even traveling in time back to “Tambov Streets On A Summer Night” to be at her grandparents’, the air fragrant with “wild lilies, mixed with the smells of warm asphalt and of potatoes and onions frying on kerosene burners,” only to miss her husband in the here and now, back at their mailbox in North Carolina.
“Waters of Tsna River” (disk 1) showcases Potter on flute, and the band in 5/4 time. If you’re not a fan of flutes, the tune is a bit long-winded. Four minutes or so of flute is, for me, four minutes too long. Although, Potter does a fine job breaking up the flimsy sweet monotony of that tinny instrument in his heartfelt undulations.
More of what I came here for can be found in disk two, especially the piano- and guitar-fabulous “Picnic In The Oaks.” Melodically ripe, atmospherically aglow, the track ebbs and flows from the best jazz cocktail: snazzy pickups, bulbous bass echoes — you know I love my bass — and a cool, loping, straight-ahead rhythm, broken up into tantalizing bits by restrained but loosely fit drummer Cleaver. I like the way the jazz conversation gradually dissipates, like friends reluctantly taking their leave.
“Trail Along The River” brings me up close and personal to Eckemoff’s often dramatically disparate world. Her ease amidst dark and light in musical reflections astounds me. The musical rendition perfectly mirrors what’s going on with her as she remembers walking the trail along a familiar river as night falls and “vacationers get ready to go back to the city. My heart sinks.”
She and the band play the sad loneliness in fond remembrances of the trail along the river and all of the life attracted to it. In the poetry of her words (“The soil here is black as charcoal where wet, and gray as ashes where dry; To my bare feet, it feels smooth and rich, like butter”), as well as her music, she depicts the tension of what was and what never will be, beginnings and endings, the “creeping, glistening” ache of fleeting joy.
While the subsequent tune, “Lament,” meanders for a point, “Trail Along The River” marches inexorably to a hopeless, foregone conclusion. The quartet (minus Potter) chimes in for a kind of farewell — their hop, skip, and jumpy notes, their lingering tones leaning toward the dark, melancholy side with eruptive bursts (in Eckemoff’s mini-jazz piano concertos) of the happiness she recalls.
Again, it’s a totally immersive experience, beyond multi-media sight and sound — into the supernatural. Eckemoff draws you in completely — until you are almost inside her head as she walks the trail along the river, seeing what she’s seeing, feeling what she’s feeling, hearing what she hears as fantastic music until the day she is able to share the soundtrack of her life.
Eckemoff achieves a kind of literal time travel, not just for herself, but for any listener open to the experience.
“All of those places and people are lost for me. So I write about them, even in this short way. I want a longer life for them than just in my memory,” Eckemoff said.
In The Shadow Of A Cloud is Yelena Eckemoff’s 11th recording — and the most jazz-worthy score of her early life in Russia.