5.0 out of 5 stars
Title: Yelena Eckemoff’s “Desert”: Extraordinary Quartet Jazz in an Arabic Mood!
Originally released just last year, in 2018, is yet another, incredibly unique and creative offering by pianist extraordinaire (and prolific composer) Yelena Eckemoff. Yelena may be Russian by birth, and now American by residence, but you would not know that by the exotic tonalities expressed in this, her latest album. From the opening strains, and consistently voiced throughout, Yelena this time takes us to the desert climes of north Africa and the Middle East, where Arabic scales and rhythms reign supreme.

What an unexpected joy to hear her take us on a thrilling journey with this caravan of equally intrepid explorers, all expert artists with resumés to match: woodwind maestro Paul McCandless (most famously of the world music pioneers, Oregon; but do not miss his rich solo career, either); bassist Arild Andersen (whose ECM explorations, since that esteemed label’s very earliest days 50 years prior, have truly defined that instrument); and Peter Erskine, esteemed percussionist and educator (having played with everybody from Stan Kenton to Weather Report and on, not the least of which are his own essential, solo dates on ECM).

To bring this level of musicianship to the task of translating Arabic sonorities into the best of jazz improvisation – well, let us just say, Yelena’s choices are themselves further strokes of her immense genius. Paul McCandless dances with Yelena, her piano perfectly complemented by his insinuating oboe, wooden flute, and other woodwind work, conjuring sensual images of Saharan oases. Arild Andersen’s bass has never sound more full-bodied, nor more surprising, in his own seeming native familiarity with the ways of the desert caravanserai. Peter Erskine has pulled together a most unusual drum kit, combining more expectable Western jazz sounds (though he is clearly amongst a small handful of those most expert) with distinctively Arabic applications (imagine an Egyptian wedding, with goblet hand-drums ringing across the Nile).

Dear Yelena: you gift us with your own pianistic depth and imagination (such fine and creative comping, “behind the scenes,” for one); unceasing compositional creativity in formulating this genuinely compelling musical milieu; and completing it with a radical masterstroke of artistic team selection: a quartet here of authentically like-minded (and selfless) souls, all joined so profoundly in bringing Arabic evocations right into the heart of the improvised jazz traditions.

A brief postscript: credit Ms. Eckemoff for inspiring at least one listener to go seeking not only more of her music (14 albums in just the past 10 years), but also to go in search of music he has not listened to in well over a decade – other indigenous masters of Arabic exotica, like Djavan Gasparyan, Kudsi Erguner, Anouar Brahem, and Rabih Abou-Khalil (the latter two, themselves, with numerous, highly regarded albums available on ECM Records).

And a quick question: Yelena, are you really sure you are from Russia?