Title: Eckemoff’s most maturely conceived, effortlessly liberated, superbly executed…and unpredictable…release to date.

With Blooming Tall Phlox, Yelena Eckemoff expands her already broad purview with an album that recalls her Russian childhood, through an unusual inspiration: smell.

Beyond demonstrating her increasingly impressive compositional and performance talents on a growing discography that has often featured A-List names like drummers Peter Erskine and Billy Hart, bassist Arild Andersen, violinist Mark Feldman and vibraphonist Joe Locke, recent albums including 2015’s impressive Lions (L&H) and 2016’s particularly moving Leaving Everything Behind (L&H) have begun featuring Eckemoff’s similarly compelling artwork and poetry.

But for Blooming Talk Phlox – a double-disc set with one disc subtitled “Winter Smells” and the other “Summer Smells” – Eckemoff has chosen to work with a group of young Finnish musicians, all either already known or well on their way to greater fame in their native country, but two of them also garnering international recognition for recordings on Munich’s ECM (drummer Olavi Louhivuori) and ACT (trumpeter/fluglehornist Verneri Pohjola) imprints. Joining Eckemoff, Pohjola and Louhivuori are rising star vibraphonist Panu Savolainen and double bassist Antti Lotjonen. Together, the quintet may have never played together prior to this recording session in the fall of 2013 but, based on the results on Blooming Tall Phlox, you’d never know it.

The music is, perhaps, the broadest assertion of Eckemoff’s growing confidence as a writer since she moved from her early years as a classically trained (and performing) pianist into a career in jazz that may have been relatively late in coming, but is all the more impressive for it. It’s been less than a decade, in fact, since Eckemoff released her first proper jazz trio album, 2009’s Cold Sun (on L&H Records, the label run by Eckemoff and her husband), but in the ensuing years she’s released, including Blooming Tall Phlox, nine additional albums that are demonstrative of a rapidly burgeoning talent in the jazz sphere. 

If anything, Eckemoff’s distinctive, recognizable approach to melody has become even more prominent, albeit sometimes couched within more oblique concerns. Evocative song titles like “Apples Laid Out on the Floor,” “Wildflower Meadows” and “Old Fashioned Bread Store” not only palpably evoke the alluring odours that remind Eckemoff of her years growing up in Moscow before she left for the United States in 1991, but provide both vivid and immediate imagery and inspiration for this 98-minute set of fifteen new compositions.

The album-opening title track is an example of Yeckemoff’s increasing sophistication, with an open-ended, rubato introduction where Louhivuori’s chimes and delicate cymbal strokes support Eckemoff’s opening statement, which immediately demonstrates a touch capable of gossamer-like delicacy and firmer muscle. A cascading series of piano notes gently lead into the composition’s main theme, played with burnished beauty by Pohjola, as Lotjonen’s sinewy bass, in conjunction with Louhivuori’s subtly responsive combination of colour and propulsion, drive the second part of this six-minute piece whose episodic nature makes it feel much longer than it truly is…but in the best way possible. Two harmonic instruments – especially those that possess significant crossover in range – can often mean coordination difficulties–in looser vernacular, “train wrecks”–but Savolainen and Yeckemoff manage to coexist in effortless harmonic synchronicity, never stepping on one another’s toes.

And that’s just the first half of Blooming Tall Phlox’s opening track. Eckemoff also explores her more avant-leaning side with the abstract, rubato tone poem “Sleeping in Tent,” its reiterated theme acting as a rallying point between freer engagements amongst the quintet and brief, time-based structures that render the piece an episodic partner to the title track that didn’t exactly begin that way. From the Blooming Tall Phlox press sheet:

“’Sleeping in the Tent’ began as a long, through-composed piece,” Eckemoff recalls. “I was a bit uneasy when we approached this one at the recording and opted to do it in sections. The guys were sight-reading my written material, and we recorded it in several sections. Then, on the last day, we decided to try playing the whole thing from top to bottom to see what would happen, and it was the most fun we had playing together. We pretty much stayed true to the composed material, but since everyone had already learned it, we followed each other, staying together even when somebody was veering off and breaking into improvised phrases. Verneri then decided to overdub the whole piece with a muted trumpet. The song came out wild and creepy…exactly the way I wanted it to be, and this was probably the most creative playing of the session. I used that take exactly the way it came out, and to my ears it was perfect.

Elsewhere, Louhvuori and Lotjonen support “Old Fashioned Bread Store” with a bit of loose, somehow timeless near-funk that relies less on firm backbeat and more on sparser intimation of groove. Eckemoff and Savolainen provide a dense harmonic cushion for Pohjola, who delivers one of his most emotive solos of the set…but, as is often the case throughout the album, without resorting to unnecessary gymnastics or pyrotechnics: instead, just deep, motif-driven ideas that lead to improvisations of potent, narrative construction. Eckemoff’s solo is an equally impressive demonstration of contrapuntal, fugue-like left-hand/right-hand coordination and a structure-building mindset.

“Wildflower Meadows” possesses, appropriately enough, a spacious sensibility and breezy disposition, though that’s not to suggest it’s anything but challenging under the covers. Pohjola’s effortless lyricism rides atop a complex blend of cross-rhythmic support from Eckemoff, Savolainen and Lotjonen, with Luohivuori providing the requisite rhythmic glue that harkens this track back to some of the best of ECM Records’ early days in the 1970s. “Pine Needles Warmed by the Sun,” on the other hand, is predicated on an idiosyncratic yet still somehow singable theme over a rhythmically open foundation that leads to an impressive, texture-driven drum solo that resolves into a more defined sense of time, over which Pohjola’s long-toned lines crest, atop Eckemoff and Savolainen, into a more outré solo, the trumpter squeezing out brief, staccato phrases that resolve into Eckemoff’s classical-leaning, intervallic-leaping theme, with Savolainen providing impeccable colours in the clouds while Lotjonen and Louhivuori provide ever-intensifying rhythmic ballast.

Impeccably recorded in Finland by Julius Mauranen and mixed/mastered by renowned American engineer Rich Breen (Oregon, Yellowjackets, Charlie Haden), there’s so much more to discover with this album that to give away all of its surprises would spoil the sense of discovery inevitable with its first spin. What Eckemoff has done, with Blooming Tall Phlox, is raise her own game as a writer, performer and bandleader while, at the same time, providing a clear context for the growth of her young Finnish band mates. While she’s always planning at least an album or two ahead, it would certainly be a nice surprise to see the pianist reconvene this superb group for another record sometime in the future. While there’s no denying that she easily holds her own with the bigger names that pepper many of her other releases, there’s a certain feeling of both comfort and informality that imbues Blooming Tall Phlox, clearly Eckemoff’s most maturely conceived, effortlessly liberated, superbly executed…and unpredictable…release to date.