Pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff was born in Russia and in 2018 lives in North Carolina—neither location suggests a desert theme. But Eckemoff became fascinated by the Arabian Desert, producing not only music but also prose stories connecting the compositions to each other, as well as poetry and paintings (including the album’s cover image). Her albums are usually organized around a theme. This one is unusual in having a musical style directly associated with it: so much of this program combines Arabic music with jazz, giving it a unique sound in her catalog.
As always Eckemoff has selected players attuned to her compositional methods and to the theme. Reed player Paul McCandless has long been involved in musical fusion as a member of the group Oregon, and his reeds recall Arabic instruments like the rhaita. Percussionist Peter Erskine provides plenty of hand drumming and other Arabic percussion sounds as needed, as well as drum kit: he proves himself tremendously adaptable. Longtime Eckemoff associate (and ECM Records veteran), Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen completes the rhythm section. Anderson and Erskine have both played on several earlier Eckemoff albums so they are well attuned to her approach.
“Bedouins” opens the set with the sound of Erskine’s little percussion kit (pictured in the CD booklet) and McCandless’ soprano saxophone. The theme has the Arabic sound implied by the title, and there’s space for everyone in the group to shine. Erskine’s percussion solo sets up a new section for Eckemoff’s piano solo, while Andersen leads back into a reprise of the tune. “Miracles” has a reflective oboe melody, and a recurring driving, serpentine piano bass line—which eventually leads into a wild, almost free sounding solo section (a rare thing in an Eckemoff composition).
“Dance” glides along on a percussion rhythm, appropriately enough. It is a courtly dance rather than a wild street celebration, and is an especially good showcase for the soprano saxophone. About halfway through there is a dramatic key change leading into a new melody, a hallmark of Eckemoff’s style. Andersen takes one of his many lyrical bass solos. “Condor” is a piano feature (no horn), a meditation on a majestic bird.
“Dust Storm” opens with a bit of uncredited wood flute, before McCandless switches to bass clarinet. His solo leads smoothly into a new section, and the reappearance of the wood flute. “Desert Remained” is notable for the group interaction (and some lovely English horn). Even in its shorter length there are dramatic compositional flourishes. “Sands” concludes the program with a meditation on the desert landscape, even though it is one of the least Arabic sounding pieces. Led by the bass clarinet, it concludes with a final soaring theme, leading into a lovely, delicate coda. It sounds like the group has taken a journey together—and it’s a pleasure to come along for the ride as a listener.