Russian pianist and composer Yelena Eckemoff usually performs in a quiet, intimate trio setting for her exquisite modern, nature-centric jazz. But for her new album, A Touch Of Radiance, she expanded into a quintet, adding vibist Joe Locke and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner to the piano-bass-drums. She also expanded on her theme of finding solace in the safety and warmth of humanizing interpretations, the equivalent of a soul-satisfying hug while it storms outside.
For her August 12 CD release launch at New York City’s Jazz Standard, Eckemoff will introduce A Touch Of Radiance, track by loving track. “We’ll be playing exclusively the material from the new album,” she explained, yesterday.
Eckemoff brings a quartet to pull off the quintet-led recording, just for the CD party, with a few surprises. “For this performance, I have recruited Grammy-nominated saxophonist Donny McCaslin and lyrical drummer Eric McPherson. Bassist George Mraz, who plays on my new album, will also perform with me that night,” she described. “The quartet will offer an exciting contrast to the quintet sound on the album, and I am looking forward to exploring the different angles of the same music in this lineup. I absolutely love the sound and interpretation we have created on the CD, but the live performance with this all-star quartet group will be a nice alternative to the CD.”
McCaslin (Steps Ahead) is a bold addition to the quartet. The New York City-based musician’s own album, Casting For Gravity, features him on tenor sax, taking huge bites out of the groove, in total beast mode.
McPherson is another bold addition, having come from the school of master percussionist Michael Carvin and the Hartt School of Music’s Jackie McLean Institute on full scholarship. He benefitted greatly from the tutelage of a host of famous jazz percussionists (Max Roach, Freddie Waits) who knew his professional dancer/choreographer mom Saundra.
They join veteran bassist Mraz, who always comes ready with a full-bodied, voluptuous sound. The Czech Republic-born Mraz has an ear for the lyrical, which served him well when he arrived in Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music in 1968, and a year later, to play with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in New York. After Gillespie, it was onto Oscar Peterson, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Tommy Flanagan.
Growing up in Moscow with loving parents, Eckemoff, their only child, learned early on to appreciate the beauty in everyday things, her picture books and her classical music, her pet Desi, her father’s poetic way with greetings, nature — sometimes harsh but always balanced by the warmth of a loving home. The classically gifted Eckemoff also learned to value the freedom of a free-form jazz, because back in those days, her country’s restrictive ironclad rule forbade such luxuries.
At the height of her creativity, she found like-minded musicians who were also activists. They hung out in a jazz studio founded by some of those activists who could play. There, she and her colleagues hungrily absorbed as much traditional jazz as they could lay their hands on. Those jazz principles would fuel her into breaking away as a most original artist with something to say and a unique style with which to say it.
By the time she and her husband were finally able to leave Moscow and live in the U.S. — first on their own, then back with their children — she was ready to turn her love of jazz and her knowledge of classical music into her very own signature.