‘Lonely Man and His Fish’: Yelena Eckemoff’s Rippling New Double-Album Touches on Love, Kindness, and Courage in Surprising Places

Conservatory-trained, Russian artist integrates horn and Japanese flute to the classical-jazz equation

Russian-born, North Carolina-based artist Yelena Eckemoff builds on her voluminous collection of music, art, and text with the latest installment, “Lonely Man and His Fish” (L & H Production). She enlists cornet whiz Kirk Knuffke to portray fictitious horn player Tim Baskin and Japanese flutist Masaru Koga to be Tim’s pet fish, Spark, in the latest five-person, double-album musical, dropping April 28, 2023. The new concept album is her 18th release. Cover by Yelena N. Eckemoff

“I was thinking about my story and I heard the Lonely Man represented by cornet, and the Fish by the flute, but I wanted Japanese flute. Masaru played shakuhachi and also a regular Western flute with an attachment that made it sound Japanese. I wanted that sound, not clarinet, not saxophone.” 

Russian jazz-classical piano-composer Yelena Eckemoff thinks in multi-dimensional, multi-media hues: a blossoming, night-sky Van Gogh set to Beethoven, Bach, and all the post-modern jazz masters looking for a new high.

In her latest two-disc concept album, Lonely Man and His Fish, she and her five-piece band imagine everyday life with intimate clarity, fantastic vision, and the additions of a Miles Davis kinda-blue with a patterned haiku narrative in a Salvador Dali and Roald Dahl setting, where the smallest detail takes on significant meaning.

The April 28, 2023 release follows the story of a retired trumpet player by the name of Tim Baskin, who, at the urging of friends, goes to a pet store and adopts a goofy-looking baby Oscar fish in the cichlid family with the bug eyes and the “pouty lips.” Together, they develop a comfortable routine and weather many storms, including a bicycle accident and a heartwarming reunion in a nearby pond.

Only Eckemoff could come up with a humble, yet wildly imaginative concept such as this. She is the artist who previously brought a pane of glass, a winter solitude, childhood and colors, lions and cubs, and a wildflower to life, crossing the animal kingdom with the human experience.

Eckemoff, in her usual multi-faceted fashion, wrote the story that goes with her music and illustrations. One cannot enjoy one without the other two. In fact, better to read the story in the album liner notes first before proceeding.

“At first, I get an idea about a project, whether it’s stages of life, colors, smells, or animals. I’m looking for the frame, the concept. I did ‘Cold Sun’ about early spring and late winter and ‘Everblue’ about the ocean. It becomes my world for the duration of the project, like when you read a long novel. Once I get an idea, I don’t write out the story before the music. I have the story worked out in my head. When I compose, I already know how the story is going to come out.”

Each disc contains seven instrumental soundtracks, totally original, discernible, delicate melodies cushioned in harmonic convergences, fractals, and diaphanous departures, with the distinctive narrative thread of Tim’s horn, interwoven throughout.

Eckemoff’s melodies aren’t like everyone else’s melodies. They’re folded and unfolded in waves, complex, concentric harmonies, harmonious sound effects, interesting counterpoints, phrasings, and layers upon layers of orchestral soundscapes.

As rising star cornetist Knuffke (Cherryco, NPR “Best Jazz Album of the Year”) put it, “nothing follows a traditional song form.” Beautiful melodies, yes, but all other facets manage to fall in line and fit “together in a logical way.”

Fantasy and logic…melody and harmony…lingering and sharp and soft…they all combine to convey love, kindness, and a little bit of heroism found the everyday things, people, and places often overlooked in a society consumed with larger-than-life personalities, idols, gods.

In Eckemoff’s world, a wildflower is capable of profound, hard-won wisdom, surrounded by fluttering, flighty caring creatures, like bees.

In her latest creation, a lonely man and his pet fish — together and apart — learn to love (and sacrifice) better, find greater understanding, forge a deeper friendship, and push through the pain and suffering through circumstance and hardship.

“…I like to select some music from the piles of already existing tunes that I’d sort for hours and decide if some of them seem like a good fit to various parts of the project; but I also compose a lot of new material inspired by the images in my head (and in my heart). In the process of developing a project, music and story go hand-in-hand: one feeds the other. The more I develop my story, the clearer I see how I should develop and arrange my music material. Also, in arranging the music to a certain band, I tailor the music to the known musicians who’ll be performing it, so they’d feel comfortable in their ‘roles.’”

“Lonely Man” introduces the character of Tim, “a shy and humble person,” who learned early on to do without (company, home and hearth) while in the passionate pursuit of his music — playing trumpet “so well that he was in high demand in orchestras and ensembles,” touring “all over the country.” Faced with a retirement and long days and nights alone, his friends pushed him to get a pet.

Knuffke introduces himself in the role with earnestness and bravado, mingling the greatest hits from the past with a baleful look toward the great unknown. He plays mostly solo, signifying the loneliness, yet picks up the exuberance and remembered fullness of playing with a multitude, as Street and Harland lay the still-scintillating groundwork.

Eckemoff’s always-lyrical piano stays by Knuffke’s side in the undercurrent, stirring up a hornet’s nest of dormant, long-buried feelings. They seem to take turns with something momentous to say in the then-and-in-between, on the precipice of some grand adventure.

At the “Pet Store,” Eckemoff’s wandering piano replicates the musical equivalent of frolicking, barking, purring animals vying for Tim’s attention. Her notes bubble, bounce, and burst, going here and there, as the listener can practically hear the sound a furry animal makes playing hide and seek.

“Lonely Man and His Fish” band: (top, left to right) percussionist Eric Harland, flutist Masaru Koga, (bottom, left to right) bassist Ben Street and cornetist Kirk Knuffke, with keyboardist Yelena Eckemoff (center). Photography by Sehee Kim, Yelena Eckemoff

Knuffke’s horn — portraying Tim — strides, then gets cut short as he interacts with, observes, and marvels at the potential pets — embodied by Eckemoff pouncing on piano — going cage to cage, then eventually to one particular aquarium housing a perky, curious Oscar fry that would become the trumpeter’s best friend. It’s an ingenious musical characterization, call and response, cause and effect, again falling perfectly into the musical maze of a cohesive composition, full of darting melody, harmony, and intersecting phrasing.

“First Evening at Home” derives its underlying rhythm from the languid strokes of the little Oscar fish Tim names Spark. Inspired, Tim literally plays along, just as Knuffke does, tracing his own languid, but lyrical notes, as echoed and expanded with sparkling, energetic efficiency by Eckemoff, who both comps with bejeweled illumination and solos, like a maestro gone rogue. The feeling is that of going around spit-shining the dullest of silver.

Then, Koga slips in on Japanese flute, a rich, lush, exotic expository of Spark’s rhythmic movements, the light at the end of its tunnels. His contribution lends a mysterious, other-worldly effect, reminding the listener of the fish’s ancient, murky origins, from a far different place than this suburban hideaway.

“This is my second project working with Yelena. She’s always bringing the most difficult and unexpected music for us to play. She’s got a great sense of humor, as we try to keep up with her and bring the music to life, and it’s always great to record with her.” — Ben Street, bassist

“Breakfast for Two” has Spark breaking up the monotony of Tim’s morning routine in the most delightful manner, sending the new pet owner to and fro to learn more about Oscar fish — Knuffke zig-zagging on his own cornet accordingly.

The movement of the piece goes from strong, sure, and confidently in one specific direction, accompanied by Koga’s flute and Eckemoff’s squirrelly piano — threatening a lovely, beckoning revolt — to erratic, confused, and loping along into free jazz territory, where anything goes and anything can happen.

At one point, 3/4ths into the track, Eckemoff flourishes her piano to give off the impression of the fish burrowing, flinging, and swishing away…as if to mimic Spark pulling out those nasty live plants one by one.

Spark’s mischievousness forces Tim to improvise with fake plants and a plastic ball, which turns out to be the fish’s favorite play toy. This, too, can be heard as piano and cornet jump and jive, together and apart, and back together again toward the composition’s end.

“Man and His Fish” is the longest chapter, detailing Tim and Spark slipping into a routine they’ve built for themselves — a nice and easy give and take of any pet owner and his pet, from feeding to playing to winding down for the evening, watching documentaries or animated movies about the sea and its creatures.

The tune is just as diverse, with the immersion of what sounds like a xylophone — chunks, bits, and bobbles bouncing off the walls in a melodic coercion of childhood dreams, carousels, cotton candy, and blue skies. Must be Eckemoff working her keys.

“Glad to be on this great session with Yelena. It’s my first time playing with her…. She told me how much she’s played with ‘Jabali,’ who we all know is the great Billy Hart, Nasheet Waits, Peter Erskine, so I was like, ‘Whoa, okay! I’m honored that you actually called me to be a part of this project,’ and it’s great, it’s been fun. You can tell that she’s very rich in the classical tradition, and observing her compositions and the way they’re through-ly composed, harmonically and rhythmically, how everything really comes together is beautiful.” — Eric Harland, percussionist

Harland’s hands and feet expertly rush the beat, giving the tune on wheels a quick, wavy groove.

“Accident” disrupts the reverie of comfortable routine when Tim lands in the hospital after a near-miss with a careening truck.

You know immediately something bad’s about to happen from the first ominous, jumpy piano notes (lightning overhead), cornet trailing obliviously along. The deceptively engaging horn-and-piano intro signifies the beginning of every wrong turn in every Broadway musical about kings and witches before disintegrating into the most lovely jazz interlude — Tim riding his bike, enjoying nature, looking up just as fate steps in.

The cornet melody comes in loud and clear, as a dramatic mix of dichotomies — calm and asunder, serenity and disruption, nature and man-made calamity, melodious, insistent distraction — tugging at the main and subsidiary musical lines, like day-old taffy.  

Eckemoff’s solo exudes soft, gracious understanding, the serene wonders of Tim’s world, nature in quiet repose. She plays the notes of a sunny day, just before its warmth is engulfed in dark clouds.

Knuffke’s breakaway horn solo, however, is another story, that of Tim and his sudden encounter with disaster, slipping and sliding and swerving to avoid an oncoming truck until — BAM! — nature and man collide, nothing left but metallic wreckage and the distant siren of an ambulance.

Brilliant, effective co-mingling of divergent scenarios and reactions, and one of several stand-out pieces.

Eckemoff and her band douses “In Hospital” with the despair of a bowed acoustic bass, as Tim learns of his many broken bones, a month-long recuperation, and the resigned, sad realization that he must let his beloved pet Spark go, asking a friendly, kind nurse to release the startled fish into the wild, in a nearby pond.

“Tim imagined how tonight Spark would nervously wiggle at the surface of the water, waiting for his master to show up with a can of food, and when he wouldn’t, Spark would pretend to be dead as usual and lie on his side at the bottom. But when Tim doesn’t show up all the next day, Spark will be seized by a chilling terror, and lonely, hungry, miserable, he’ll thrash around to exhaustion, splashing water from the aquarium and waiting in vain for his master.”

The pianist captures Tim’s worst-case scenario, banging her notes higher and higher, to the brink, to the edge of Spark’s thrashing surface, faster and faster in a mad dash for signs of its master in an empty room. In doing so, Eckemoff embodies both the trumpeter’s growing panic and his imagination gone wild.

“Into the Wild” shows what happens, musically, when the kind nurse goes to Tim’s “old and shabby” house “on the edge of a lovely pond,” with “woods all around,” retrieves his pet Spark, who has gone from pale pink to angry red, and drops the squirming fish into the dark, murky, cold pond.

The musicians pick up and play the turning-point notes of change, inherent in any story: discovery, empathy, shock, distress, and again, aching loneliness of another kind — from the viewpoint of the fish.

Bassist Ben Street takes on the movements of the nurse visiting Tim’s abode, arrestingly, as does percussionist Eric Harland, ushering in a kind of causative, shiny, carpeted tread, while Koga’s Spark fish hauntingly wails in places…always a reminder of where its home truly is and the new home it has grown to love more.

Eckemoff ties the pieces together with fulfilling music, a happy ending to come.

The tune reflects the constant, swirling, sometimes frenetic passing of fish, for survival and plenty, in Eckemoff’s nimble fingers. She’s Spark and the wild fish all around in the pond, but she’s also the strange falling-apart/falling-together music their freedom entails.

Koga joins Eckemoff in an eerie rendition of what it must feel like to live underwater, forced to forage amidst friends and foes for pure survival.

While the band members capture the sorrow of solitude and the ache of separation of Tim and Spark’s unlucky circumstance, they also touch on the inadvertent, natural beauty nevertheless of their surroundings and how they adapt, almost seamlessly within such a ruthless environment.

“This project has been great. One thing I really appreciate about Yelena is that one of the first things that she told me was, ‘I want to work on a project with a Japanese flute, I don’t know why, I wanna try.’ It’s the sense of a kind of a pure curiosity and wonder about how she approaches composition in her projects. It’s almost child-like, not knowing what it is going to be like, but kind of going with just instinct and intuition, and at the same time, allowing the musicians to partake and be creative. She’s open to suggestions…I feel like we’re creating this project together. I play shakuhachi and flute in ways that are untraditional.” — Masaru Koga

“Life in the Pond” kicks off the second disc, continuing to swirl around and around with increasing intensity, Spark getting his footing in the deep, murky pond, learning to survive near-misses on the fly. A clear melody adheres and hinges to the little fish, his furtive, dancing anthem, as Eckemoff keeps rotating the forward floral movement, skirting skirmishes in the “maze of vegetation,” as well as all potential bottomless monsters lurking in the shadows.

Koga flits in and out, vibrating his flute, resembling cattails, willow roots, water lilies, and “the sensation of strong vibrations in the water” that Spark senses all around him.

“Survivor” serves as both a stand-alone song, lyrically brimming over with the promise of tomorrow, searching for a vocal crescendo, and the next chapter in Spark’s life, one of adjusting and adapting to his new environment…becoming more of himself, a fish in the wild, one with nature.

“Imagining the nurse throwing Spark out of that bucket into the pond, Tim groaned in pity for his poor pet and, raising the trumpet to his lips, began to play, pouring out his sorrow in quiet, hopeless at first, and then with increasingly heated and insistent sounds.” Illustration by Yelena Eckemoff

Koga and Eckemoff, Eckemoff and Koga…their flute and piano lyric traces Spark’s involuntary boundaries within and without, as he shifts from comfort to loss, a pet to a wild creature; a musical-becoming that is as wondrous as it is heartbreaking, because both instruments have the innate capability of exuding loneliness to the nth degree.

“Empty House” compounds that loneliness, as Tim returns home, sorting through the debris of once-found happiness, what remains of his life, with Spark gone.

Piano waterfalling, bowed and picked bass clean…Tim’s — and by default, Knuffke’s — horn cuts through the chasm with torn, effusive yearning.

In Eckemoff’s subsequent solo-bridge, a blossoming floral reverence — harbinger of the good times between Lonely Man and His Fish — there manifests the sudden decisive turnaround, as Tim grabs his horn and heads for the pond, hoping against hope to somehow find Spark there and coax him back home.

“Tim played with selfless inspiration, his trumpet blazing in the glow of the setting sun, and everything around him seemed to stand still, listening to this strange and passionate music.”

In the album’s complex climax, “Song for Spark,” Eckemoff infuses her piano notes with brightness that seems incongruous to the lost cause, giving way to Koga’s weeping willow, floating in a gentle breeze, Knuffke playing what Tim feels — anguish, shame, desperation, then release — seemingly composing on the spot in a real-time process of laying all his signature cards on the table, from one fond memory to another.

His horn crumbles, blazes, crying out in a near-human voice — broken by time, misfortune — and makes inverted, ungodly stifled shrieking sounds that tear away at the heart…sounds of grief a horn, and a human, rarely make, but should. Award-winning sound.

What a memorable “Song for Spark,” it is.

The entire band plunges head-long into an uneasy, tension-filled marriage of dynamic, dizzying sonic and free-form jazz, harkening the merger of two golden ages (straight-head and experimental)… closer and closer to Eckemoff’s happy, fulfilled musical ending — the reunion — which the pianist teases as a major counterpoint to the stark terror of Knuffke’s beacon search.

In gracious spaces, Eckemoff expands on the piano repertoire, encompassing her own set of bass-drums and treacly rainforest storms, climbing terra-cotta terraced steps towards some higher purpose, while giving depth and breadth to a composition about the rewards of taking a leap of faith for love.

“Every album I do is conceptual. I’ve been composing music since I was four. I don’t even try. Tunes come to me. Sometimes it’s too much. God created me like that. That’s why I don’t perform that much, and don’t want to perform anymore. I have so much to compose. And in the genre I compose, the project is only finished when recorded with jazz musicians. I design the project for them to be able to express themselves.”

In her own words, tunes come to her unbidden, and sometimes, it’s too much. In the 12th composition — her strongest, and yet, most difficult to pin down — Eckemoff masterfully juggles a tricky overflow of narrative, scene setting, movement, characterization, and mood with the laser mindset of a conductor and the feel of inspired musicians locking into all of it with specificity and collective generosity.

Once Tim miraculously draws out his Spark, the two reunite in a “Call of Friendship,” an S.O.S. in electronica, keyboard, flute form.

Eckemoff and Koga make their instruments swim in the rippling, deep blue, maneuvering tone and texture to evoke the rippling presence of willow roots, assorted other fish, and Spark making his quick-silver way to Tim, spinning in confusion, bouncing up and over the water’s surface, following his heart.

The dangling instrumental ripples could easily apply to the joy in seeing one another again in the darkness of night, as every pet and pet parent knows.

Tim and Spark triumphantly return home, settle in for the night, and fall asleep, “Dreaming Together,” for the last track.

In Koga’s flute, there is the comfort of home — a warm, silky thread felt by Spark, the fish, and reverberatingly influencing Tim, overwhelming him with relief and gratefulness.

Knuffke responds in kind, growing warmer and silkier by association.

Encircling them both, Eckemoff acts like a fairy godmother waving a magic wand, but also inhabits the spirit of Spark basking in the glow of finding his place in the big blue world, here with his horn-playing friend.

Her twinkling piano notes say good night and good dreams, where Spark swims with Tim, a human-turned-fish, in a cross between reality and fantasy, melody and harmony, logic and technique meeting beauty and touch.

In the fade, Koga’s anthropomorphic flute assumes the wave-like rhythm of Spark’s S-shaped tail and unique voice if voiced aloud, a most appropriate goodbye.

“It turns out that there is no glass at all, and the aquarium is an immense space filled with warm, air-bubbling water. It’s so easy and pleasant for Spark to swim side-by-side with his master, picking up sunken insects on the way, and he’s not at all afraid of the whiskered predators scurrying around, because he knows that his master will protect him from any danger.”

The last two tracks especially reveal Eckemoff’s predilection for pairing classical music with jazz (Dave Brubeck) and progressive rock (Pink Floyd) faves, the kind of point-to-counterpoint, or good-to-bad-to-good, if you will, found in life’s everyday stories.

Average listeners could play the double-album every minute of every single day and always find something new and inventive tucked in between the storytelling lines. This is, after all, her God-given gift.

Lonely Man and His Fish (L & H Production) is Yelena Eckemoff’s 18th release.

Artists’ quotes from an EPK and liner notes.