The Russian classical pianist, Yelena Eckemoff, now living in the U.S. and dedicating herself to jazz continues to forge a singular musical path – and a generous one, too, this being her 10th jazz release since 2010.
I have always found her approach intriguing because although she surrounds herself with jazz musicians and improvises herself, her way of structuring her music and indeed her own playing sounds much more aligned – at least to my under-educated ears – with classical composition than the Afro-American jazz conventions.
There has been increasing assuredness in this approach over those ten releases but its development is not quite so easy to articulate or illustrate because none has shared exactly the same personnel. The earlier albums were trio affairs, latterly the groups have expanded and diversified in instrumentation. Eckemoff’s choice in musicians is impeccable: Mats Vinding and Peter Erskine on her first jazz disc, Cold Sun, for example, with subsequent line-ups including, from this side of the pond, Morten Lund, Mats Eilertsen, Arild Andersen, Tore Brunborg and Jon Christensen; from the U.S. Billy Hart, Mark Turner and Joe Locke.
Last year’s Leaving Everything Behind was a deeply moving collection of pieces many of which were linked by loss – of childhood, of family, of homeland – all eloquently explored by Eckemoff with an all-American band of Mark Feldman on violin, Ben Street on double bass and Billy Hart on drums.
Blooming Tall Phlox – it’s hard to tell whether there is a joke there, whether the phlox are “bloody tall” as well as in bloom – changes the personnel again. It was recorded in 2013 in Finland with Eckemoff on piano and compositions, Verneri Pohjola on trumpet and flugehorn, Panu Savolainen on vibraphone, Antti Lötjönen on double bass and Olavi Louhivuori on drums and percussion.
There are two discs, the first subtitled Summer Smells, the latter Winter Smells, and the contrast between them is subtle but discernible.
Eckemoff always brings strong stories and imagery to amplify her instrumental music by including her own poems and paintings. And again, these poems link the world around her – flowers, smells, domestic life experiences – with memories, of an old world, a previous life, so giving them history along with the currency, and a certain poignancy is thus never far beneath the surface.
Titles include Smoke From The House Chimneys In Frosty Air, Pine Needles Warmed By The Sun, Talks Over Hot Tea, Grandpa Lera’s Bookcase, Aunt Galya’s Perfume and Apples Laid Out On The Floor. The youthful Finns help the pianist/composer to realise these scenarios in sound, the music flowing in an out of the solos, the rhythms ebbing and flowing from laid back to restrained intensity. Some of it feels programmatic – the chilly tinkle of vibes and piano underneath the flugelhorn perfectly evokes smoke from chimneys and frosty air – while at other times Eckemoff is more oblique in her references.
A thoroughly absorbing couple of hours of beautifully conceived and sensitively played music. Do check this out and also Yelena Eckemoff’s back catalogue.