Yelena Eckemoff Quintet: Blooming Tall Phlox 
L&H Production

Yelena Eckemoff Quintet: In the Shadow of a Cloud
L&H Production

Every artist’s story is unique, though the evidence suggests Yelena Eckemoff’s is more unusual than most. As a young girl growing up in Moscow, she received extensive training in piano and music theory, studied with some of the country’s greatest teachers (Anna Pavlovna Kantor, for example, who also taught Evgeny Kissin), and, after eventually acquiring her Master’s Degree in piano performance and pedagogy, taught piano herself when not playing concerts and writing music. Her life underwent a dramatic change in 1991, however, when she, with her husband, emigrated to the US and subsequently self-released albums of classical, vocal, folk, and religious music. Another pivotal moment arrived in 2009 when she recorded her first jazz album, Cold Sun, with drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Mads Vinding, and in the years since a remarkable string of releases has appeared featuring Eckemoff working with Mats Eilertsen, Marilyn Mazur, Mark Feldman, Arild Andersen, Billy Hart, and others.

While many of her releases are trio dates, two recent small ensemble sets offer a fascinating study in comparison and contrast. The similarities first: both are double-CD affairs that complement Eckemoff’s compositions with poems (one per composition) and paintings by the pianist; both also appear on L&H Production, the label she co-founded and the central outlet for her music. Blooming Tall Phlox and In the Shadow of a Cloud are different, however, in other respects: Eckemoff’s joined by young Finnish lions on the former (trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, vibraphonist Panu Savolainen, bassist Antti Lötjönen, drummer Olavi Louhivuori) whereas New York musicians appear on the latter (woodwinds player Chris Potter, electric guitarist Adam Rogers, double bassist Drew Gress, drummer Gerald Cleaver); conceptually, the two releases differ, too: recorded in Finland in 2013, Blooming Tall Phlox draws for inspiration from scents from Eckemoff’s Russian childhood; In the Shadow of a Cloud deals with evocation also, though in this case it’s places and experiences associated with the life she left behind when she emigrated to North Carolina. Given such details, it shouldn’t surprise that stylistically the tone is different on the recordings, with Blooming Tall Phlox vividly impressionistic in contrast to the more directly melodic and robust In the Shadow of a Cloud.

As also should be obvious, both projects are intensely personal in nature; Eckemoff is anything but a hands-off producer. Yet despite the extreme degree of control she exercises over the recording projects, she doesn’t micro-manage those who accompany her on the sessions. She selects her personnel with care, knowing that once the players are clued in to the project and familiarized with the material she’s written for it, they’ll rise to the occasion and put their own personal stamp on it.

Her playing is distinct, too. Unlike many a pianist who during a formative period absorbs jazz’s traditions in the hope of gradually joining the club, Eckemoff came to jazz in circumlocutory manner, with many years of committed classical playing preceding the shift. As a result, her playing in a jazz context is distinguished by a refined touch that bolsters the music’s distinctive blend (Rogers astutely notes, “Yelena’s music is … different from a normal jazz record because it’s more through-composed, but I wouldn’t describe it as being a ‘classical-jazz’ hybrid record, because it sounds more like she’s assimilated these influences and is expressing them in an already very processed way, processed in a really good way.”) Interestingly, her playing doesn’t dazzle the listener with ecstatic expression; instead, she weaves herself into the performance, her contributions always mindful of the compositional structure in play. She’s a thoughtful player, in other words, who doesn’t feel the need to dominate the proceedings but instead tastefully enhance it.

In keeping with its olfactory theme, Blooming Tall Phlox subdivides into two parts, “Summer Smells” and “Winter Smells,” the song titles in each section directly referencing the memory trace Eckemoff drew upon for their creation. The material’s impressionistic character is established immediately when Louhivuori sprinkles the title track’s intro with percussive bells and cymbal shadings, the pianist following his lead with her own textural contributions. The compositional shape thereafter comes into focus with Pohjola’s entrance, as Lötjönen anchors the group and Savolainen adds his own bright flourishes. That somewhat metre-free opening is nicely followed by “Apples Laid Out On the Floor,” which, powered by the bassist’s walking and the drummer’s flow, swings by comparison and boasts rousing solos by the leader, vibraphonist, and bassist. Among the strongest pieces are “Fish Fried On Open Fire,” due to a wistful theme voiced with conviction by Pohjola and strong support by Louhivuori, and “Talks Over Hot Tea,” thanks to some of the trumpeter’s boldest playing and an uplifting performance by the quintet. Elsewhere, a subtle hint of “Someday My Prince Will Come” is intimated by the melodic progression of “Clementines and Candies on Christmas Tree,” while a trace of R&B sneaks into the relaxed swing of “Aunt Galya’s Perfume.”

The five deliver strong ensemble performances throughout, each one emblematic of attentive listening and sensitive connection. The impression left is of group interplay where each player’s contributions are integral. Do the performances replicate in musical form the scents associated with a bread store, pine needles, wildflower meadows, and an aunt’s perfume? As much, perhaps, as they can when instrumental playing’s involved; at the very least, one can say that Eckemoff’s settings are evocative, especially when Louhivuori functions as percussionist as much as drummer and when Pohjola, muted and otherwise, and Savolainen consistently bring rich texture to the playing.

On In the Shadow of a Cloud, the Finnish musicians’ American counterparts—woodwinds and guitar replacing the trumpet and vibes as lead voices—prove to be as strong a fit for Eckemoff’s music; in fact, the fit might be even better for the way their performances lend her compositions such striking immediacy and help the music communicate so forcefully. As mentioned, the release shares with Blooming Tall Phlox a nostalgic dimension, though this time the scent-based concept expands to memories of places and things experienced during her life in Russia. The playing is so seamless, it’s hard to believe that the sessions for the date were the first time the five had played together, even if Eckemoff’s collaborators had performed together in various permutations before the December 2016 recording date. All five acquit themselves admirably, though special mention must be made of Potter, whose contributions stand out for the many timbres his tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, and bass clarinet bring to the material.

Like Blooming Tall Phlox, a number of pieces stand out as particularly memorable, the opening title track certainly one. In a full-bodied, vibrato-tinged tenor, Potter voices the pleading eight-note theme first, after which it’s repeated by Eckemoff and Rogers, each partner contrapuntally shadowing another’s utterance and sometimes voicing it in unison. Whereas Cleaver and Gress provide a free-floating base in this piece for the others’ musings, their grounding is solidly defined in the subsequent “Saratovsky Bridge,” which again sees Potter clarifying the material’s shape with a forceful articulation of its melodies and delivering a muscular solo as well. Joining him on the front-line are Rogers and Eckemoff, the former opting for elegant, abrasion-free fluidity and the latter enriching the pieces with solos ever connected to the composition out of which they grow.

Not surprisingly, the performances often convey in musical form the tone of the composition as suggested by its title. The relaxed flow of “Waters of Tsna River” is conveyed not only by Potter’s flute and Eckemoff’s lightly swinging solo but by Cleaver’s confident handling of the tune’s 5/4 time. “On the Motorboat,” on the other hand, moves briskly, the image quickly forming of Eckemoff and family cruising down the waterways on a gorgeous summer’s day and feeling the cool wind in their faces. With many of renderings delicate in tone (“Acorn Figurines,” on which the leader delivers one of her most appealing solos, and “Hammock Stories,” a lovely ballad featuring a strong thematic statement by Potter), the uptempo performances stand out for being modest in number. The second disc’s breezy opener “Picnic in the Oaks” sees Eckemoff and company digging into a bluesy, half-speed swing like they were born to it, with all four—Potter sitting this one out and Rogers stepping out forcefully in his absence—riffing memorably on the changes. More rhythmically emphatic is “Vision of a Hunt,” which also offers a rare sampling of Potter’s bass clarinet playing.

As full an Eckemoff portrait as these releases provide, they’re not the whole picture; no doubt she assumes a more dominant role as a player on the trio recordings than she does as a quintet member; one also expects that her playing figures even more prominently on Colors, her upcoming release with drummer Manu Katché. Blooming Tall Phlox and In the Shadow of a Cloud nonetheless provide a sterling survey of her artistry, especially when her talents as a musician, composer, producer, and conceptualist are showcased so thoroughly.