While the art of playing jazz qualifies as a multisensory experience, involving listening, touching, and seeing, it usually doesn’t extend so far as to include the sense of smell. But that’s not to say that a nose for scents has no place in musical and artistic spheres. If you need convincing, just look at Blooming Tall Phlox.
For her tenth album in six years, pianist Yelena Eckemoff uses life and nature’s bouquets as her muse. Her memory sniffs out various ideas and moments in time, which are then remarkably translated to the page and further expanded upon in performance. There are no secrets to be found in the titles themselves, as Eckemoff points directly to the aromas and odors that inspired them, but the music is full of mystique and aural arcana. In considering those facts, Blooming Tall Phlox can accurately be described as Eckemoff’s most and least direct album to date.
Eckemoff and her band, comprised of up-and-coming Finnish musicians, explore fifteen different topics here, split over two CDs and divided into two seasonal categories—”Summer Smells” and “Winter Smells.” The album opens in the former season with the title track. A gentle metallic clang greets the listener, inviting the ears into a free and nebulous atmosphere at first glance. Bassist Antii Lötjönen eventually helps the music to coalesce, and trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, entering more than a minute into the piece, further assists in the binding process. Pohjola’s searching horn draws focus upon its entrance, but it doesn’t retain control. Eventually solid shapes are reduced to seemingly formless wanderings that eventually merge anew and evolve into a courtly dance for Eckemoff, Pohjola, vibraphonist Panu Savolainen. This initial offering doesn’t define what’s to follow, but it illustrates how concrete writing and indeterminate thoughts both have a seat at the table when Eckemoff is at the head of it.
As Eckemoff and company continue to move through the lazy days of summer, they continue to toy with expectations. “Apples Laid Out On The Floor,” a number with a swinging subtext, benefits from the use of an accelerando and rallentando that help to create a tempo arc in the music; “Baba Liza’s Singer” builds off of minimalistic layering before using Pohjola as a directional beacon to take the music from dirge-like depths to soaring heights; “Old-Fashioned Bread Store” sways and swoons, presents some of Eckemoff’s hippest soloing on the album, and offers another opportunity to appreciate the interplay between trumpet, piano, and vibraphone; and “Fish Fried On Open Fire” presents like an attractively quirky tango in a slow glide, inviting the ear to take part in an oddly alluring dance.
The trip into winter that occurs on the second disc is equally intriguing, but it isn’t the icy spell that might be expected. Eckemoff certainly conjures a chill, as displayed on the sedate yet impactful “Smoke From The House Chimneys In Frosty Air,” but she largely shuns glacial tempos and oh-so-spare atmospheres here. “Clementines And Candies On Christmas Tree,” for example, puts beauty and strength in balance and focus, and “Scented Candles And Sparkling Wine” grows from daintiness and gaiety to a controlled groove that’s magic.
Whether you appreciate this music or not, you really have to hand it to Eckemoff. She’s quickly managed to create an enviable body of work that blends post-modern abstraction, classical thought, and jazz language into a seamless whole. There’s a fearlessness in her art that’s not always addressed in discussions of her work. It’s not so easy to just dive into jazz when you’re further down life’s road, it’s certainly a challenge to try to match forces with some of the music’s giants shortly after taking the initial plunge, and it’s quite difficult to create original music that offers intelligent thought and surprise when you’re working under the aforementioned realities. Kudos to her for overcoming those obstacles.
Eckemoff may not be a pure jazz musician, but who is these days? She has her own voice, she knows how to utilize her gifts, and she’s managed to create quite a lot of compelling music in an incredibly short period of time. We may not know where she’ll go next, but if the recent past is any indication, she’ll probably go there soon, and it will probably be a trip unlike any other.