Pianist Yelena Eckemoff’s backstory doesn’t suggest the potential for a rise to the category of top level jazz pianist. But here she is, after emigrating to the U.S. from Russia with her husband—leaving her children (temporarily) and everything else (permanently) behind in 1991 to escape repression and to start a new life. Classically trained in her homeland, Eckemoff came to jazz relatively late. With persistence, talent, ambition, audacity and a seemingly unshakable optimism, she has navigated her way to the top echelon of the jazz world and created a substantial discography of very good to excellent recordings, collaborating with the cream of rhythm section cohorts—bassists Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen, drummers Peter Erskine and Billy Hart.
Eckemoff doesn’t go about her craft by throwing a bunch of disparate tunes or ideas together. What she does is establish themes—such as Lions (L & H Production, 2012), or remembered aromas from her childhood, Blooming Tall Phlox (L & H Production, 2013)—fashioning herself into a master conceptualist.
Eckemoff’s first release of 2018—she is persistently prolific—is Desert, a musical exploration of the magic of vast and seemingly barren lands, of mirages and drifting, whispering sands, of muted pastels of vast, wide-open spaces.
She has chosen to employ for the project the previously mentioned teammates, bassist Arild Anderson and drummer Peter Erskine. New to her ensemble is multiple reedman Paul McCandless, a founding member of the group Oregon.
A Middle-Eastern mood pervades on a set of Eckemoff originals, sounds tinted by the influence of the Arabian peninsula: “Bedouins,” “Mirages,” “Desert Cry” and “Colors Of Nothingness.” The arrangements are succinct and crisply executed. Drummer Erskine gives a masterclass in elevating the music throughout, in the way that Paul Motian always did, with a distinctively different approach.
Eckemoff’s compositions have a characteristic refinement, their accessible complexities woven through by McCandless’ sinewy melodic lines from his oboe, English horn, soprano saxophone and bass clarinet. And a bonus—Eckemoff’s prose and poetry included in the twenty-plus page cover booklet that adds a vocabulary to her musical ideas. Especially compelling is her short story “Bedouins.” She is proving herself as fine a writer as she is a musician on this excellent work of art.
When the coils of time were dissolved, the desert endured.—Yelena Eckemoff, from her poem “Desert Remained.”