5.0 out of 5 stars

Title:┬áPianist/Composer Yelena Eckemoff Continues to Mine New Territory in Her First-Time Collaboration with Oregon’s Paul McCandless

Desert is another in a long string of consistently superb recordings from the persistently prolific Yelena Eckemoff. In these days of decreasing album sales, rarely performing live may mean that this expat Russian pianist/composer’s upward trajectory is relatively slow. Still, what she has achieved without regular gigging is, in fact, quite remarkable, as critical and popular acclaim for her work continues to grow, with more and more people coming to know – and love – her thoroughly compelling music.

Following 2017’s sublime In the Shadow of a Cloud and 2016’s ambitious Blooming Tall Phlox, Eckemoff returns with the stunningly beautiful Desert. Any album that brings Norwegian double bassist Arild Andersen together with American drummer Peter Erskine and reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless (a personal favourite, always, from the great band, Oregon) is already starting with some pretty darn fine DNA. Add to that Eckemoff’s wonderful compositions and exceptional piano work, and the result is another superlative album that manages to stir the soul, even as it represents some of the pianist’s most challenging music to date.

As always, Eckemoff’s albums always have a concept and the Middle Eastern-tinged Desert is no different, as she explores vast, often harsh but still, somehow, strikingly appealing landscapes. With McCandless’ far-reaching contributions on everything from soprano saxophone and bass clarinet to oboe, English horn and wood flute, Desert may be Eckemoff’s most texturally expansive album yet, with a group perfectly suited to tackle music ranging from rhythmically propulsive to obliquely -and, at times, ethereally – abstract.

Eckemoff’s music isn’t always an easy ride, with tracks like the maelstrom-like “Condor” and angular yet appealing “Colors of Nothingness” representing some of her most obscure writing ever. But these tracks, when taken together with the rhythm heavy optimism of “Oasis” and unabashed lyricism of “Garden of Eden,” create a conceptual whole that explores Eckemoff’s subject matter with the greater musical breadth that it so richly deserves.

Many musicians have concepts that drive particular recordings, but few make albums as thematically focused as Eckemoff, who also paints her own cover art and often contributes self-penned poetry to help further the contexts of her multifarious musical predilections.

Eckemoff’s playing continues to evolve at a seemingly exponential pace; combined, as it is here, with Andersen’s visceral yet eminently singing bass lines, Erskine’s capacity for layering effervescent yet delicate grooves with broad-stroked colors, and McCandless’ ability to render even the sparest of lines as deeply personal as his more soaring improvisational flights, Eckemoff’s increasingly recognizable combination of complex yet eminently persuasive writing and thoughtfully conceptualized pianism makes the richly envisioned Desert yet another move forward.

Every album Eckemoff releases is a good entry point to a body of work that is both increasingly diverse and inimitably personal, and the highly recommended Desert is no exception. But with her longstanding relationships with Andersen and Erskine bolstered by a particularly evocative first encounter with the ever-impressive McCandless, Desert may well be the best – and broadest – of her dozen recordings made since 2010’s Cold Sun.