Title: You Had Me at Poetry
‘Romance of the Moon’: Federico Garcia Lorca inspires new, ‘balm on your soul’ jazz concept album from prolific Russian piano composer Yelena Eckemoff

“Lorca is one of the best poets [who] ever lived.  I’ve been moved by his poems (in Russian translations back then), while still a teenager and wrote a few settings for voice and piano. In fact, ‘Memento,’ which made [it] to [the] ‘Romance of the Moon’ album, is one of those…. I can’t wait to learn of your impressions of the album, and I hope this music would make you feel good and hopeful.”

The late Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (Romancero gitano, Gypsy Ballads, 1928) built compelling interest in small (anthropomorphized) things most people take for granted or overlook, like snails, lizards, cats, a “Guitar,” and a “Barren Orange Tree.”

A multi-faceted artist who hid his pain in his work, Lorca also threw himself into other artistic expressions and styles, including Japanese haiku, Spanish folk, sketching, and the avant-garde.

His first play revolved around a lovesick cockroach, and bombed miserably.

He was open to collaboration, to bending and blending traditional with contemporary, comedy and farce with tragedy, pushing every boundary, leaving himself open to ridicule and profound discovery with later generations.

In many ways, Lorca resembles many jazz artists of our time, in his ability to transform abstract ideas and technical proficiency into a feeling on various canvasses. Perhaps, none more aptly than Moscow, Russia-born, North Carolina-based classically trained Yelena Eckemoff, who turned to jazz to further complete her conceptual expression.

Also multi-faceted and prolific to the core, Eckemoff last year recorded 13 instrumental pieces, inspired by some of her favorite, soundtrack-ready Lorca poetry, accompanying them with her own visual art.

“Each track expresses a poem, and all 13 poems are published (in my English translation) in the booklet.”

Romance of the Moon (released May 10, 2024, L&H Production) features composer Eckemoff on piano, Paolo Fresu (trumpet, flugelhorn), Riccardo Bertuzzi (electric guitar), Luca Bulgarelli (double-bass), and Stefano Bagnoli (drums).

It is Eckemoff’s first time playing with these particular musicians, some of Italy’s finest. She made sure to ease their transition into her complex world, where every single note possesses a magical, musical life of its own and everything in her magical, musical world sings its own soundtrack, providing Italian translations of Lorca’s poems.

“In jazz, the project is only finished when recorded with jazz musicians,” she explained in a press release. “I design each project for them to be able to express themselves.”

Loneliness lingers on Fresu’s horns throughout Romance of the Moon, threading, mesmerizing, haunting each poker-still-to-burnished-cloudscape track. There is a bassist keeping languid, nervy time, like a backbone that never breaks…a shutter that always opens, but Eckemoff simultaneously joins in, leads off, and conducts the suite as both driving, restless, maternal narrator and part of the band.

She does what she does so well, infusing each piece with moonlight while leaving musical breadcrumbs in and out of animated reverie, and gently, patiently showing the listener what it must be like to be her, discovering Lorca’s poetry and then singlehandedly going forth to make nebulous sense of his intangible-tangible world.

To the tracks, the long and the short of it:

“In the yellow towers,
The bells are tolling.
The yellow winds transmit
The sound of chimes…”

At first, the chorus-like “Bells” seems to be all-encompassing, as the pianist assumes the primary role, introducing the horns, softening the outward strains, a bit of bass signal, then a faint bleed-into-memory melody — right at the beginning, so you kind of hear it in the foreground and the background, guiding you along windswept hills but never too far from home.

Her piano elaboration is insistent, particularly pointed, yet a falling over backwards kind of letting go, tossing your cares and woes aside…the equivalent of following a path, then diverging from it, standing erect, hands clenched, then tossing cherry blossom petals into the air to watch them fly.

The band faintly illuminates what it means to be and see “death crowned with | Wreath of withered flowers,” humming and strumming ancient lute songs, “the ringing of bells in…yellow towers,” and dust on silvery sails.

“Woodsman,
Cut out the shadow beneath me.
Spare me from the anguish
Of seeing my fruitless reflection…”

“Barren Orange Tree” is anything but. It is a lively, compact-to-expansive wish in floral, flitting notes that contract, bind, and release. It is everything the barren orange tree fears it is not, on the cusp of wanting to be more (hope) and wanting nothing more than to be free of a prison where it is nothing to no one (hopelessness).

It is the horn and the piano playing out the parentheses in a futile game of what-if, what could’ve been; the tree’s dream of being normal, pregnant with life…down to the movement of ants, the ventricular growth of vines and natural aging of bark stripped down to the bone.

It is also a wonderful amalgamation of traditional (threaded, hide ‘n seek melody) and contemporary avant-garde the band plays so well, from the thrill-seeking, downward-thrumming horns and the pecking order of finger-key trills, down to the drummer’s slam-dances and the tree’s lingering bass heartbeat.

“The weeping of guitar begins,
The chalices of dawn break.
The crying of the guitar begins…”

You can tell Eckemoff really loves “Guitar.” She and her band make a meal of the melody, turning a few sanguine notes into the reason for being.

Bertuzzi is a revelation, mining for gold in the desert, his flickering light a beacon of ancient philosophies, reverberating through the ages as a spark to every hit single, every blockbuster movie finale, every sold-out concert.

Here, each band member stokes invisible fires, encircling light and shadow, extracting the ultimate anthropomorphized concept into a living, breathing, humanity-shifting show.

“From afar, the sea smiles:
Teeth of foam, lips of blue skies…”

“Ballad of the Sea Water” is one of the most imaginatively descriptive of Lorca’s poetry. You don’t even want to know the story or what happens at the end; you’re just helplessly lost in his lyricism…the way he sees the sea and sky and all around, how he melds nature with man-made perspectives and conversations in his head. Again, the loneliness turned upside-down, naturally producing art.

Most of the accompanying music rests in how the horn (think this is flugelhorn) diverges diversely from its own downstream tale. It sounds as if the band is improvising, too, in the same full-bodied, fleeting, off-the-cuff vibe that Lorca gives off, composing in the moment, going with what it feels.

At times, Fresu plods on — Eckemoff giving off vibrant hints of what’s to come — before bleeding himself dry, landing on fertile ground, where he taffy-pulls the highest notes, threatening squalor.

At others, further towards the middle and the end, he zigs and zags into sorrowful infinity, marked by striking difference, interspersing dark, brooding monotony with an almost euphoric break, a wellspring of an answer to “Those salty tears | where do they come from, mother?”

“Domesticated Mephistopheles is lying in the sun.
He is a graceful cat with the demeanor of a lion,
Well-mannered and friendly,
Albeit somewhat sarcastic.
He is very musical; he understands
Debussy, but doesn’t like Beethoven.
At night he walked on the piano keys,
Oh, how gratifying for the soul!
Debussy must have been a philharmonic cat in his former life.
That brilliant Frenchman understood the beauty
Of the cat-like chords on the keyboard —
Avant-garde chords of murky, shady water…”

Throughout and underscoring “About Cats” is Eckemoff playing a cat stepping on piano keys, producing a kind of accidental musical score every cat owner can relate to…the kind that startles, then intrigues, then, they go back to their work until the cat latches onto a few more.

A good poet picks and chooses memorable examples, expertly slipping them into the momentum of a snippet of a story or mood. Instead of, “The moon looks like a round white circle in the night,” a poet will wrote in something specific to compare and contrast and make you want to linger a while longer.
Something like:

“The moon came to the forge
In the flurry of tuberose blossoms…”

That was Lorca’s specialty, one Eckemoff easily picks up and riffs on in her high-low heartbeat monitor on the title track. “Romance of the Moon” goes back and forth between a guitar-y oil lamp, flickering and sputtering itself on and off, and Eckemoff’s god-like hand, finishing what Bertuzzi started in electrified stanzas.

“Romance of the Moon” is one of those tracks you can do anything with. Have it play on repeat in the background as you go about transcribing an interview for a magazine feature on deadline, do the laundry, or try to compose a Dear John letter while scrolling the Internet for the latest news on Trump and P. Diddy.

Whatever you do, it works.

“An arm of the night
Enters through my window.
A big, brown arm
With water bracelets…”

The palatial use of spacial relations raises the swoon-worthy “Window Nocturnes” to a special level. The band doubles-down on that haunting, yearning lonely romanticism resplendent in Lorca’s poetry, musically fulfilled.

His unique look at life in poetic form, coupled with Eckemoff’s classical-jazz kinship with everyday things made magical, exalts their dual-purposed, multi-faceted, like-minded genre in a fluid, floral, almost spiritual groove that only sinks deeper into the skin.

No musical interpretation could ever do such poetry justice. But Eckemoff and her band come close.

Theirs is a naked, interlocking invitation, a finger brokering ever closer — or the “big, brown arm with water bracelets” — into Lorca’s strange, ethereal world, where everything and everyone has a say, where it’s safer to be among wild, belly-crawling creatures and crooked-limbed sentinels than the scary, predictable, self-destructive drudgery of humankind, and all of it holds a multi-dimensional allure of color, sound, movement, instinctive heaviness, and feel.

Every instrument serves as a time stamp, a purpose, a striation of Lorca’s original intent in natural harmony. A horn player searches the sky, pointing out cloudy, starry, sunset sea change, while embodying the best of those worlds. The drummer traipses by, a stray cricket, perhaps, struck by a wandering moon…and Eckemoff leads them all astray, with reminders to come back home soon, supper’s waiting.

“The diamond of a star
Has scratched the infinite sky,
Like a bird of light that wants
To escape the universe
And flees away from the huge nest
Where it was imprisoned for ages
Not knowing that it is bound with
A chain tied around its neck…”

You might think you’ve heard it all by the time you reach the eighth track, “Diamond,” but something in the way the pianist raises the curtains, shakes off the musky doldrums, rustles the leaves, and rushes the tipsy trade winds — like an old-time jazz monk — convinces you to stay for Bulgarelli’s bass-required measures that tip and sail.

Stay.

Fresu harps on his horn so insistently, referencing what Miles Davis could’ve been if he hadn’t been so hung up on two defiant notes.

The birth of the musical adaptation of “Diamond” is what pain does to a lowly outcast who has nothing left to lose but write his last will and testament…the most brilliant piece of straight-ahead jazz art — in its truest form — ever created in a down-home brothel at the turn of the last century.

Eckemoff’s “Diamond” is what happens when Burt Bacharach jazz gets a hold of poetry that sings of the beauty in all living things through the eyes of the enslaved, trying to cope with a chain around their neck.
An untouchable moving on…

“There is a childlike sweetness in the quiet morning.
Trees spread their arms to the earth.
A trembling mist covers the sprouts,
And spiders tend to their silk threads in the air…”

“Adventurous Snail” takes on a rock groove (yes, that’s Eckemoff), with every last note wavering on a lustrous, resonant high.

Piano notes hover, glimmer, and glow, guitar strings separate, a portal to all of their senses, reaching for the stars, knowing what the gutter feels like.

The tune represents the literal and figurative path of a curious, but timid snail wandering away from her comfort zone and meeting strange new creatures who tell her to go, who talk about god and other spiritual paths, who make snap judgments, who try to explain their lot in life (“I have seen the stars”).

The poem is one of the longest in the album, and the most interesting of divergences — fitting for a jazz respite.

“The afternoon says, ‘I thirst for shadows!’
The moon speaks, ‘I thirst for stars.’
The crystalline fountain asks for lips
And the wind — for groans…”
Like much of Lorca’s writing, “Thirsty for News Songs” has unrequited carnal desire embedded in its history, verbiage, and innuendo. The artist himself may or may not have had a tortured affair with Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí.

That fleshy push-pull theme of his (“You are a Christian storm and you are in need of some of my paganism…[Dalí]”) spills out here and there in this poem, a reawakening of a torrid sort, and to a lesser extent, in the mostly chaste afterglow of a tune that focuses more on what Lorca seemed to desperately hold onto despite temptation — the mirth, the joy, the peace of undisturbed nature (“I am thirsty for aromas and laughter | Thirsty for new songs | Without moons or irises | And without doomed loves”) — in place of the darkening shadows of earthly need.

Which tells you where artist Eckemoff’s head’s at.

“When I die,
Bury me with my guitar
In the damp river sand…”
“Memento,” the poem and the tune, is short and bittersweet and unintended, romantically lingering, full of longing for people, places, and things that have never been and never will be — generalized, sublimated, and truncated under the horn and piano umbrella.

Its rising tide shines in percolating, tender, timid grips, in the way the horn rests on a last trailing train of thought before the piano runs away with the piecemeal scenario and the bass billows like a forlorn, obsessive loon too far away in a mostly sorrowful, resigned state.
Fresu shakes off his rattling horn for unsettled effect. Eckemoff blankets his furry, fuzzy navel-gazing with the majesty of what could be, the best in humankind, lifting the nitty-gritty ground-breaking internal structures with cerebral transformation…spiritual liberation — the equivalent of taking a person’s head in the sand and turning his face to the sun.

The horn is Lorca, speaking from within, with all his restrained, roiling secret desires. The piano is Lorca’s offshoot aspirations, beyond this conflicting realm, but still scarred.

Somewhere in eventide, Eckemoff rolls off a poetic ballet piece of her own, evoking the image of a black swan slowly tossing her elongated perch to and fro, shaking off rustic feathers of a foregone conclusion.

“In the parched path I’ve seen the good lizard
(a distant relative of a crocodile) meditating.
With his green overcoat of a devil’s abbot,
His proper posture and his stiff collar,
He sadly resembles an old professor.
Those dull eyes of a failed artist,
How they watch the fainting of the afternoon!”

Lorca mixes animal and human metaphors, his own personal history, the battle of spiritual will and earthly lust in “Old Lizard,” a deceptive nursery rhyme wrapped up in a soulful riddle about love in safe, burrowed places…as if asking himself in these made-up characters, what’s it all for?

Eckemoff answers in a musing rock/jazz fusion grid, fueled by guitar strands, dwelling on the mode of staring up at the unknown, unknowable universe, settling for what is and what could be than what was and what could’ve been.

One gets the sense that Lorca often escaped his inner turmoil with a walk in the woods, looking at the unbothered creatures going about their day, making up stories, putting himself in their shoes, and, if you listen very carefully, leaving rain puddles of what he may have been struggling with away from paradise lost.

A muted battle Eckemoff softens and beautifies and blows back in streaming, hollow echoing guitar, a string of pearls piano, frosted glass percussive drops splashing here and there…the musical picture of inward-outward gazing.

“A balanced combination
Of juicy peach and sugary sweetness,
the sun is hiding in the evening glow,
Like a pit in the fruit pulp…”

“August” ends on an orchestral jazz encore, with the horns taking on two or three more players (it seems), the piano winding up a good gig in ruminative runs, as if re-trying the previous set list…as the band does its best to embody the month of August, its summer frills, and the feel of lying in a boat, row-row-rowing along.

The horn rides on a melodic, sliding scale (but upward), taking melancholy turns, a tiny bit sad and wistful, the full-circle regard of a grown-up thinking back to childhood’s innocent luxuries.

Armed with piano and drums, Eckemoff eases the melancholy, setting a table full of favorites, a kettle of hot tea, chocolate chip cookies, daffodils and peonies in French cobalt-basalt drinking glasses…warm conversation, mirth, a hand and heart toward the setting sun and the blossoming stars just beyond the event horizon, drifting off to sea…

…the perfect juxtaposition of what Lorca denied himself and loved so dearly.