Yelena Eckemoff approaches her musical productions much like a congenial film director. To bring out the best performances, she first selects exceptionally talented ‘actors’ who, having been provided with clear instruction (read: charts), require a modicum of instruction. Eckemoff directs with a nurturing hand, intent on ensuring that everyone involved is comfortable, and she ‘acts,’ too, though always in such a way that she’s never less or more dominant than the others. Yet while their contributions are critical to the project’s outcome, Eckemoff, as composer, producer, arranger, and pianist, is clearly the one in charge. And her involvement extends into other areas, too: she composes texts that serve as guideposts for the compositions and displays her professional-calibre paintings in the release packages.
Her recent Desert is representative of the approach. For this date, she convened Oregon’s Paul McCandless (oboe, English horn, soprano sax, bass clarinet), Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, and drummer Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Steps Ahead), three players with decades of recordings and gigs behind them (Andersen and Erskine teamed up for the first time, incidentally, on Eckemoff’s 2013 release Glass Song). They’re seasoned pros who, presented with charts, can deliver a credible performance the first time through, and consistent with that each of the recording’s eleven tracks plays like a live take the four laid down soon after familiarizing themselves with it; as a result, the music’s characterized by freshness and spontaneity. Erskine’s comment after the two-day recording session ended is telling: “Yelena brings out the best in all of us.”
The leader herself is a distinctive player, a pianist who brings a very personalized style to the jazz piano tradition. Whereas another’s is heavily informed by the blues or R&B, her playing is strongly influenced by years of classical training, which makes for a generally elegant and lyrical result. Perhaps the best way of stating it is to say that she embroiders the material (see “Garden of Eden” as an especially good illustration) while also providing a secure foundation for her partners; rarely sitting out, she’s instead omnipresent, though never overbearingly. Her solos are typically arresting for the way they weave intricate patterns without losing a fundamental sense of swing.
It’s a concept album of sorts that sees Eckemoff and company relocating to the Arabian desert and evoking in musical form the sights, sounds, and rhythms of the setting. True to form, she composed texts for the compositions, in this case a short story for the opening “Bedouins” and poems for the ones following. In the story, a Westerner, having lost his wife and daughter, decamps to Arabia where he stays with a Bedouin family, hoping to join it. Having determined that his guest’s a better writer than desert worker, the family patriarch invites the visitor to stay but in a writing capacity, the poems displayed after the story presumably samples of his creative output. Eckemoff’s never visited the Arabian Desert (she was born and raised in Moscow and emigrated to the United States in 1991) and the album was recorded in Hollywood, California, but that hardly deterred her from imagining what it would be like to gaze upon sand dunes and the slow treks of caravans.
All four musicians are integral to Desert‘s tapestries. Erskine is a wellspring of percussive imagination, Andersen unfailing, McCandless indispensable, and Eckemoff her usual attentive, supportive self. Though McCandless is the one most responsible for articulating the melodic character of a given piece, each player’s contributions are critical; in augmenting his drumming with percussion, for example, Erskine does much to help evoke the mystery of the Arabian locale (see “Oasis,” for example). Interplay is at a consistently high level, and solo episodes emerge naturally from the ensemble; Eckemoff favours slow to medium tempos, which also allows for a relaxed, loose feel that encourages improvisation and strengthens the impression of live interaction. In a typical piece, the musicians follow a road map of sorts that provides direction but that’s also not constricting creatively, and free episodes even in a few cases arise. While Desert is by default jazz, it also could be labeled World music for its aromatic fusion of Arabic music, jazz, and classical.