Another beautiful release from the ever prolific Yelena Eckemoff. Tapped into some primal source of uninterruptible melody that is always entirely original yet somehow deeply familiar, each album is like the next instalment of some patiently understated but ultimately mighty unfolding song. It’s so hard to put one’s finger on exactly what it is that makes her music so special and yet it is important to do so if more people are to be convinced to check out just what they are missing. I described her work to someone as composition led, European chamber jazz. Classically trained in piano and composition her works breaks the typical jazz formula of ambitious right hand improvisation over chordal grooves and riffs in the left. Her music is properly polyphonic, with ideas moving in from above and below and between both hands, in ceaseless contrapuntal invention. There is improvisation, but the improvisation is always in the service of the composition, and it is often hard to tell where one starts and the other leaves off. As such this does not conform to the standard modern jazz pattern of the song being just a vehicle for improvisation. It is something rather unique.
That is the structure of her music but then there is its character. Everything Yelena does starts and ends with nature, and a life lived easily within its rhythms, in awareness of the miraculous in the everyday. Her music is always kind, gentle, seldom resorting to strident crescendos. There is also humour, wisdom and despite these qualities an earthiness that avoids merely pretty escapism. A thing I admire is despite the predominately spacious feel, and the subtle interplay between musicians it encourages, she doesn’t fall into what I call ‘the ECM trap’ of just making moods with pretty noises soaked in reverb. Music is always central, the momentum of notes and chords coming and going, telling stories. When there is improvisation it is never about testosterone fuelled pyrotechnics or racing to beat one’s own or anyone else’s personal bests. Improvisation is always a means of extending the meaning of the composition. Of making sure the next note or chord is the most interesting, however long it takes to find it. Her ability to find other musicians who stay within the discipline of this aesthetic is itself remarkable.
With this particular album she has gone back to Finland to work within a six-piece context whose core is the guys with whom she made Blooming Tall Flox; my erstwhile favourite, if just because it was the first I heard. With this many players there is a sense of orchestration, of instruments moving in and out in varying combinations that is rather different in structure from the profound intimacy of her trio work, such as Glass Song. Indeed, in my mind I can hear some of these pieces laid out for orchestra. It would be fascinating to see how she communicates her intentions in the studio to her players because what she gets out of them is in no way typical of the usual ‘jazz gig’.
Again, the album is packaged with Yelena’s own exquisite artwork and the little prose poems that set the scene for each track. This multimodal aspect of her work is, it seems to me, is more than just embellishment. Rather, they are aspects of a deeply unified creativity lived in service of a quiet but powerful spiritual vision. I found myself wondering who her classical influences might be; the tender side of Beethoven occurred to me. But, curiously I realised the artist who most comes to mind is William Blake, who of course is not a composer at all.