Pianist and composer Yelena Eckemoff, who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, recently completed a whirlwind tour of New York’s jazz haunts. One night it was the Mingus Orchestra at the Jazz Standard, the next it was Tom Harrell’s quintet with Mark Turner at the Village Vanguard. Turner played on Eckemoff’s latest album, A Touch of Radiance (L&H Production), so she wanted to check him out. But she was also in New York at the urging of another collaborator on that same album, drummer Billy Hart.
“Billy said to me, ‘What are you doing in North Carolina? You have to come to New York more often and mingle with musicians!”‘ she said. “So that’s what I’m doing. I’ve been trying to catch up with what I’ve been missing.”
It’s been a long trip for the Soviet-born Eckemoff, who came to the United States from Moscow (invited by a family in Greensboro) with her husband in 1991. Their three young sons would follow the next year.
“I don’t know how we did it,” said Eckemoff, laughing. “At this point, it seems like we were crazy.”
Eckemoff was conservatory-trained, first at the Gnessin Academy of Music for gifted students, then at the Moscow State Conservatory. She was a classical pianist and teacher, someone whose interest in jazz was of a piece with a curiosity about all styles of music. That curiosity led her to hang out with jazz and rock musicians, and play with them. She also checked out touring American jazz artists like Dave Brubeck.
“I was mostly interested in applying new principles of improvisation to my own compositions,” she said. Her composing, which she began at the age of 4, followed her moods. “If I was in a good mood, I composed, if I was in a bad mood, I composed. If a boy didn’t like me and I liked him, I sat and played the piano.”
In the States, she was immersed in raising a family-with three boys under the age of 10. As the kids grew up, she gave lessons and began experimenting with electronics in her home studio, and released a string of solo albums with every thing from original classical pieces to Russian folk songs. She jammed with local musicians but grew frustrated with the level of musicianship. On the Internet, she found the veteran Danish bass player Mads Vinding as well as drummer Peter Erskine, both of whom were willing to dub parts onto one of her piano recordings. “When I listened to that recording,” she said, “I was crying, because I said, ‘That’s it! That’s where I want to go!”‘
After a few trio albums including players like Vinding, Erskine and the bassist Arild Andersen, where Eckemoff wanted to go reached a new realization with A Touch of Radiance. Informed by her classical training, Eckemoff writes in open-ended, elusive structures that are closer to sonata form than standard 16- or 32-bar verse-chorus arrangements. But working with Turner, Hart, vibraphonist Joe Locke and bassist George Mraz, she has created exploratory, lyrical pieces that combine melodies and orchestrations that sound at once clearly directed and freely improvised.
“Jazz has its own rules,” said Eckemoff, “and you cannot bring just anything to jazz musicians and say, ‘Let’s play.'”
Forthcoming from Eckemoff is Lions, featuring her trio with Hart and bassist Andersen. Like her previous albums, it’s all originals, no standards. “That’s not because I don’t like them,” Eckemoff explained, “but because there are so many recordings of jazz standards by great musicians – I don’t think I can add anything.” She laughed. “Also, I have so much music that I’ve composed. I’m busy making sure I leave something behind me that is mine.”