No recordings, it seems, are more informed by their creator’s personality than pianist Yelena Eckemoff’s. While every album is very much part of a continuum, each also stands apart when the concept and personnel change from one to the next. Common to all, however, are compositions written by the pianist, the paintings she creates for each project, and the texts, be they poems or stories, she writes that function as creative impetuses for her and her guests. Add to that her distinctive approach to the piano and the directing hand she brings to the recording sessions and the result can’t help but be an Eckemoff product in the fullest sense.
Her latest, a double-CD set titled Lonely Man and His Fish, checks all the aforementioned boxes. The text in this case is a beguiling story about Tim, who spends his post-retirement days playing trumpet next to a newly acquired aquarium that’s home to a fish he calls Spark. A bicycling accident sends Tim to the hospital, which leads him to ask a nurse to release his fish into a nearby pond lest it die from neglect. Spark survives a series of harrowing episodes until Tim, now freed from the hospital, plays his trumpet near the spot where his friend was released and is reunited with the fish. The narrative ends with the two comfortably ensconced in Tim’s home and rejoicing in the simple pleasures of life together. The story possesses all the innocent charm of a children’s tale and could as easily be presented as a book geared for young readers and featuring her text and paintings.
The music and narrative are smartly conjoined in two ways. First, the story’s interspersed with chapter headings that are also used for the fourteen track titles. Secondly, two of the five musicians assume the roles of Tim and Spark, the lonely man represented by cornetist Kirk Knuffke and the fish Japanese flautist Masaru Koga. Such moves provide a programmatic grounding for the project that makes it all the more enjoyable. The high calibre of musicianship Knuffke, Koga, (acoustic and electric) bassist Ben Street, drummer Eric Harland, and, of course, the leader bring to the performances is also critical to the impression the project makes.
With the five musicians weaving their way through her characteristically intricate compositions, the tone of the playing is complementary to the story; at the same time, each of her guests imposes his stamp on her material, making for music that’s instantly identifiable as Eckemoff’s yet marked by the personalities of her partners. Armed with a smooth, vocal-like delivery and infusing his playing with earthy, New Orleans flavour, Knuffke fits cozily into the material, quick on his feet, agile, and responsive to where the music leads. Much the same could be said of Street and Harland, who solidly animate the performances with assurance and imagination. Koga provides an effective foil to Knuffke, the woodsy timbres of his Japanese flutes registering distinctly against those of the cornet and piano. Eckemoff’s playing distances itself from other jazz pianists for a number of reasons. Her classical training, the music she absorbed in Russia before moving to the United States in 1991 and the sounds she’s been exposed to in the decades since, the impact on her of the many musicians with whom she’s played—all such things have made her into the versatile player she is today. Including Lonely Man and His Fish, eighteen albums have appeared on her L & H Records label since 2010’s trio outing with bassist Mads Vinding and drummer Peter Erskine, Cold Sun. The ever-adventurous Eckemoff isn’t afraid to stretch out either, with the new set seeing her augment acoustic piano with Fender Rhodes and Musser Ampli-celeste.
Fittingly, “Lonely Man” initiates the album in quartet mode, with Koga sitting out until “Pet Store” documents Tim’s first encounter with the fish. The intertwining of the musicians’ lines anticipates the close relationship he and Spark will nurture, despite being vastly different creatures. During “First Evening at Home,” the connection between them advances when Tim matches his playing to the fish’s movements in the aquarium. As the music swings, it’s easy to visualize Spark’s graceful movements and Tim’s attempt to mirror them. Similar to “Lonely Man,”“Into the Wild” excludes Knuffke from the performance when the track recounts Spark’s removal to the pond during Tim’s hospital stay. It’s a strategy carried on throughout the release, such that the cornetist and flutist sit out during those parts of the story where they’re absent.
The quintet ventures down a number of different stylistic pathways during the eighty-seven minutes, from bluesy whimsy (“Breakfast for Two”) and funky swagger (“Man and His Fish”) to turmoil (“Accident”), despondency (“Empty House”), and yearning (“Song for Spark”). Just as their first meeting brought joy, the album-closing “Dreaming Together” finds Koga and Knuffke exchanging leads and expressing delight at being reunited. Lonely Man and His Fish is, as Eckemoff’s releases consistently are, wholly endearing and original. Stamped through and through with her signature, the ever-evolving music offers a striking complement to the story. At the same time, the performances hold up perfectly well separate from the narrative when the interactions between the five are so inspired. As she’s done before, Eckemoff shows herself to be a great recruiter of talent and keen to the chemistry that emerges when exceptional musicians are assembled.