Russian-born Yelena Eckemoff is a classically trained concert pianist who has more recently in her career taken on jazz, but has done so strictly on her terms. Her terms means she brings a European styled chamber approach to the idiom that doesn’t eschew using their chops, but does eschew showing off chops just for the sake of doing so. This means she isn’t giving us a not-so genuine take of over-tread standards aping Bill Evans or Brad Mehldau. For the record, I love how those guys played piano, but Eckemoff offers a refreshing break from those styles as she maintains a high level of musicianship, and that’s just as worthy of admiration, too.
Eckemoff has had the great Peter Erskine drum on two of her prior albums, but Glass Song adds even more star power with the addition of one of Europe’s finest bassists, Arild Andersen. Interestingly, this is the first meeting on record of Erskine and Andersen, which is unexpected since both have recorded extensively for the ECM label. This meeting alone makes this album enough reason to listen to it, but, undoubtedly, it’s not the only one.
Eckemoff took full advantage of Andersen’s presence, more often than not ceding the floor to him, often leaving the impression that it’s his album. Eckemoff, however, sets the mood with her compositions and her sensitive, discerning and very soft piano demeanor, utilizing much of her classical upbringing. Erskine is similarly circumspect, taking a very subtle, artful approach to his kit. Honestly, this could have been mistaken for an ECM record itself.
Being compared to that aesthetic is no failing by far, but this is also one of those records you really have to listen up close to appreciate. There’s the key jazz marker of improvisation present on Glass Song (especially from Andersen), but Eckemoff puts prime focus on melodic development, graceful execution, subtly shifting moods and minimalism to connect to the listener. That means that the listener has to listen with as much of a classical ear as a jazz ear.
The relaxed feeling of the music doesn’t really vary much at all from song to song, and most of the time, the mood is somber, if not downright dark. That makes tracks such as “Sunny Day In The Woods” and “March Rain” notable because they let some sunshine in (but not too much). The differences among most of these tracks have more to do with differences in degree: “Cloud Break” has particularly good three-way interplay. “Glass Song” causes no ripples, like the smooth surface of an undisturbed pond, and Andersen sounds gorgeously sorrowful, while Erskine’s cymbal work is so nuanced and advanced. On “Polarity,” Eckemoff is able to create character and mood simply by using a succession of minor chords, instead of relying on dramatic piano devices.
“Dripping Icicles” is the only song on this program that swings, and does so very lightly. Andersen’s bass lines go along parallel paths with Eckemoff’s piano, and the melody feels airy and spacious enough for plenty of improvising. “Whistle Song” is notable for Erskine’s subtle cymbal and snare work. Eckemoff sets the harmony playing chords with left hand, and deftly spins single line notes with her right. “Sweet Dreams” and “Elegy” exploit the use of space, with the latter finding Eckemoff unhurried, spare and full of lithe delicacy.
Yelena Eckemoff’s subdued musical character might require you to lean in like we often do when someone is whispering. In the same way as whispering, her music is rewarding for those who do make the effort to lean in.