Yelena Eckemoff’s releases benefit from a number of things. To begin with, they’re highly personalized affairs, each one presenting not only her distinctive piano playing and compositions but also painted artwork and free verse poetry, each designed to enhance and bring clarity to the project theme. One of the major drawing cards of an Eckemoff recording has to do with her choice of collaborators, with each album featuring her and an ever-changing cast of top-tier musicians. Last year’s Colors, for example, paired the Moscow-born, North Carolina-based pianist with drummer Manu Katché, and previous releases have included Verneri Pohjola, Paul McCandless, Ben Monder, Mats Eilertsen, Peter Erskine, and others. She also regularly varies the number of players involved, with Colors a duo set and others featuring trio, quartet, and quintet groupings.
For Nocturnal Animals, she recruited double bassist Arild Andersen, a frequent collaborator, and drummers Jon Christensen and Thomas Strønen. Expanding on the standard piano trio format in such manner not only makes for an unusual and original sound but also exceptionally pleasurable listening. Typically, the piano leads in such a context, and so it does here, too; however, the interactions between the four are at such a high level of responsiveness that the playing field levels out. Yes, Eckemoff does provide the melodic thrust, and it’s her playing that most defines a piece’s character, but the constant interactions between the four creates the impression of a band of equals.
Issued on her own L&H Production imprint as a double-CD release and recorded over two days in April 2018 at Rainbow Studios in Oslo, Norway, Nocturnal Animals presents fourteen musical impressions of night-time creatures. Conceiving an album with a particular theme in mind isn’t a new thing for the pianist, with previous projects having centered on a variety of subjects, including the desert and the Biblical psalms. Using nocturnal creatures as a creative springboard was a clever move, given the abundance of animals from which to choose. Eckemoff tackled the challenge with characteristic seriousness by imagining what the first-person experience of each creature might be like and fashioning material in concert with it.
Her classical background (she studied piano at Moscow State Conservatory) lends her playing a dignified and subtly aristocratic (though not stuffy) quality, while her love for jazz infuses it with an insistent rhythmic flow. She’s no maximalist intent on overwhelming the listener with a barrage of notes, but neither is she a minimalist. Her playing appears as an imaginative stream of invention that gives her partners ample material to respond to. She and Andersen act as a tag-team of sorts, the bassist shadowing her and assuming a prominent role as both melodist and soloist. Nocturnal Animals is also elevated by the Christensen-Strønen combination. Rather than adding excessive density, the two generate a rich array of drums, cymbals, and percussion sounds. Without putting too fine a point on it, Strønen provides a deferential, clutter-free foundation which Christensen adds to with tom-tom accents and cymbal flourishes. The cumulative result is a multi-layered music where multiple things are happening at once, and the listener is never less than engaged.
Many of the pieces demonstrate a clear connection to the animals for which they’re titled. “Fox” stands out immediately for its muscular swing, Eckemoff’s approach in keeping with a text that portrays the animal as one born to run and light on its feet; propelled by a syncopated, chords-based theme, the tune gives all concerned a nice opportunity to loosen up and indulge their rhythmic selves. “Grizzly Bear,” on the other hand, naturally plods at a slower tempo and with a heavier step, whereas percussive rattling emerges during “Rattlesnake,” which advances in something of a sidewinding slither. During “Wolf,” it’s easy to visualize the creature stalking a large herd of deer when the playing advances with patient deliberation, and the adventurous treatment given “Hedgehog” suits the rabble-rousing persona of the animal presented in Eckemoff’s poem. While the playing’s a little bit funky in keeping with the slinky “Lynx,” “Firefly” presents a graceful treatment rich in percussive sparkle, with piano trills and runs suggesting the creature’s movements. In a few cases, surprises arise: one mightn’t, for example, anticipate music so stately and lyrical from a piece called “Toad.”
One production error does confuse matters slightly, specifically that the track durations listed on the package’s back cover don’t match the ones shown inside the booklet, the latter being the correct ones—a minor glitch that has no impact on the project otherwise. Eckemoff is a truly remarkable artist, one possessing a seemingly bottomless well of energy and ideas (Nocturnal Animals is apparently her fifteenth release in ten years). In featuring her playing, compositions, artwork, and poetry, this latest collection testifies to the incredible creative resources she consistently draws upon and makes the release, eighty-seven explorative minutes in total, resonate all the more memorably for being so personalized.