5.0 out of 5 stars

Title: A Genuinely Historic Document!
Reviewed in the United States on March 22, 2020 Format: Audio CD

There are few jazz music labels that are revered, and instantly recognized, by jazz aficionados…and even fewer recording engineers that have earned universal respect from music-lovers across the world. ECM Records, helmed by producer Manfred Eicher, is the former. His go-to engineer for the past half-century, Jan Erik Kongshaug, the latter.

ECM is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, with feature articles in every major jazz magazine, including DownBeat and Jazz Times, and commemorative concerts around Europe and the United States. (I just caught their representatives here in southern California, at the Blue Whale Jazz Club in Los Angeles.)


Dear Mr. Kongshaug has, sadly, just passed.

His loss — to all who have looked forward to his every production these past decades — is inestimable.

I, myself, made a personal pilgrimage to Oslo, Norway, exactly ten years ago. Having corresponded with Jan Erik prior to my travels, I was so gratified that he welcomed me to visit him at his world-renowned Rainbow Studios (in Oslo). As fate would have it: there is only one other fellow Norwegian who could possibly have trumped my meeting Mr. Kongshaug…and yes, that individual, drumming pioneer, Jon Christensen, agreed to meet me the very same time I had scheduled for visiting Rainbow Studios. I hastily called Mr. Kongshaug with my dilemma, and he beyond generously said: “You’re a drummer, Bob. And you’ve loved Jon Christensen for as long as he has recorded with me. You should meet him instead. I’ll be with you both in spirit.”

Thus it was that I spent several hours, that May afternoon in 2009, with the man who has more deeply influenced my drumming conception than anyone, by far: Mr. Christensen.

All of which brings me to the current review, of dear Yelena Eckemoff’s most recent offering, “Nocturnal Animals.” Yelena’s music has been a fixture in my home this entire, past decade. I’ve been blessed to review several of her prior albums, and am grateful to be doing that again here. But what of the above introduction?

It’s simple, really. Yelena’s piano conception, her depth of field in drawing together classical traditions (including from her native Russia) with jazz execution (she has literally drawn to her side most every jazz luminary worth mentioning these past 10 years) lies at the heart of Manfred Eicher’s original vision for ECM Records, dating all the way back to 1969.

And if that weren’t enough: Yelena has drawn here, with “Nocturnal Animals,” on two of the original cadre of ECM artists — bassist nonpareil Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen (you already know how I feel about him) — along with the next generation vanguard, Thomas Strønen (more about him soon), to create a complete Meisterwerk, exemplary of Eicher’s initial inspiration — all of it recorded for all posterity in what, sadly, represents one of Jan Erik Kongshaug’s final offerings from the mecca of contemporary recording, Rainbow Studios in Oslo!

Can you believe how fortunate we are to have this lasting, truly legacy recording?

Jon Christensen, the quintessential ECM drummer himself, laying down intertwining beds of trans-metrical rhythms…anchored by his successor, even heir apparent, fellow Norwegian Thomas Strønen, whose precision, coupled with utter originality, is itself an absolute wonder.

I love how Jan Erik captured in the left channel, Mr. Christensen, and in the right, Mr. Strønen, as they sing and dance around Ms. Eckemoff’s pianistic journeys. I say “journeys,” because if you stop everything, and pay very close attention, you will find yourself taken on voyages to every continent, every culture, every imagined world with Yelena’s incredibly unique and evocative compositions and expressions on concert grand.

Yelena is the epitome of creative humility: her technique, at the very highest imaginable level, and yet, even with that, her openness to create space for her compatriots.

Speaking of: Arild Andersen — who must surely be the definition of “ageless” — draws from the depths of his instrument…a world of bass. His solos are riveting — and you could literally visit both albums of this 2-CD set and place all your attention on Andersen’s bass contributions, and leave completely filled and satisfied.

Imagine then what it must be like to experience the convergence of four, genuine masters — each of his or her respective instrument — as they roll out deep listening and engagement with one another, unquestioned virtuosity at their fingertips, all in fidelity to Yelena’s unending flow of creative and (even for her) unusually spacious composition.

I cried when I listened to this supernal album. Jan Erik is no longer with us. Jon Christensen nears the end of his recording career (his every solo moment on this album defines tastefulness and grace) – and generously passes the baton onto his friend and protégé, Thomas Strønen. Who knows how much longer we will have dear Arild Andersen with us? (Please don’t miss his sterling contributions to several of Ms.Eckemoff’s prior album masterpieces, including “Glass Song,” “Lions,” “Everblue,” and “Desert.”)

And dear Yelena: for your heart and mind this entire past decade…for your utterly prodigious output at only the very highest quality…for the spirit that suffuses not only your sonic contributions, but also the extraordinary poetry and paintings (all your own) which accompany each of your albums…and yes, for your immortalizing here one of the very final recordings ever by Jan Erik Kongshaug, one of the great engineers of all-time, himself a key architect of “the most beautiful sound next to silence” (ECM Records’ absolutely accurate motto)…for all this and more – blessing upon blessing as you move into the New Year and new decade, beginning most auspiciously with this incredible testimony to modern jazz at its best: “Nocturnal Animals”!

P.S. I write this postscript in March of 2020: the coronavirus pandemic is upon us all. And dear, dear Jon Christensen just passed away one month ago, after a lengthy, severe illness and hospitalization. Ironically, I found out about Jon’s grave illness during an interview with yet another contributor to several of Yelena Eckemoff’s classic recordings, drummer Peter Erskine. Peter informed me initially; then just one week later, Jon passed. As it turns out (and again, quite synchronistically), I was interviewing drummer Billy Hart (also a major contributor to Yelena’s music in recent years) but a week or two later, and mentioned in passing my deep sorrow with Jon’s passing. Billy stopped the interview, thunderstruck, informing me that he had not been aware of Jon’s passing. Three drummers, all three intimately connected to Yelena Eckemoff, all three drumming giants with deep, mutual respect for one another, and for Ms. Yelena. So please add blessed Mr. Christensen to my above dedicatory to Jan Erik Kongshaug: the passing of both lend even further, unfathomable value to this recording you will soon be enjoying. It’s truly an historic document!