Pianist-composer Yelena Eckemoff is predictably unpredictable. After an early series of piano trio albums she worked with larger ensembles, culminating in the sextet (plus vocalists) of Better Than Gold And Silver (L&H, 2018). After cutting back to a duet with drummer Manu Katche on Colors (L&H, 2019) she returns with a larger band, but with a difference; this is a quartet with double bassist Arild Andersen (her longest collaborator), and drummer/percussionists Jon Christensen and Thomas Strønen.
It may look like a piano trio plus a second drummer but, in practice, it is more like a piano & double-bass duet plus a drum duet. Andersen is often found as a lead instrument or playing counter-melodies, in addition to traditional bass duties. As usual Eckemoff has a unifying theme—reflected in her paintings and the poems which accompany each track—in this case nocturnal animals. The animals active at night are a varied lot, ranging from the fox depicted in Eckemoff’s cover painting to cicadas, owls, bats…even scorpions and fireflies.
“Cicada” opens the set with a calm evening vibe, including a lyrical double bass solo. “Fox” has a swing feel which is rare in Eckemoff’s music, extending to Thelonious Monk-like blues flavor. “Rattlesnake” is played rubato, with especially free percussion. This is the closest the percussionists come to a solo, distinguishing themselves instead by their empathetic interaction as accompanists. “Toad” opens with a rubato double bass solo, then the piano introduces a sprawling theme, gradually morphing into piano and double bass solos. The bass plays the theme again to close, the entire track demonstrating how central Andersen is to the group sound.
“Lynx” returns to a more direct rhythm, in contrast to the frequently rubato feel of the album. “Sea Turtle” closes the program, placing the recurring theme between bass and piano, while also demonstrating Eckemoff’s sectional compositional style. It includes a spotlighted bass solo with only percussion at first, and concludes with a rhapsodic restatement of the theme, Eckemoff’s piano echoing the Romantic composing style of Liszt or Rachmaninoff.
Given the all-star ensembles frequently found on Eckemoff’s albums, a listener could be forgiven for wondering “who’s the pianist?” This album and the previous duet recording both place Eckemoff the pianist on the same plane as Eckemoff the composer, proof that the two sides of her musical life are closer together than they appear. Nocturnal Animals presents a unique perspective on both.