Since 2005, pianist, composer, and bandleader Yelena Eckemoff has produced and released her own recordings via her L&H label. Further, she is an accomplished poet whose works are often added as supplementary, illuminating liner notes. She also paints her own album covers in a distinctive yet mysterious style that references the music. She’s released well over a dozen albums — most are conceptual — and she’s accompanied by an astonishing array of jazz musicians, many of whom come from ECM’s large stable.
Nocturnal Animals is a double-length, 14-tune set whose subjects are the creatures of the night, with bassist Arild Andersen, and drummers/percussionists Jon Christensen and Thomas Stronen. She has worked with the bassist and Christensen before.
Eckemoff’s tunes are complex and multi-dimensional; they reflect her substantial classical training, as well as her love for folk and sacred music, expressed in painstakingly annotated compositions, syncopation, and improvisation.
Nearly 90 minutes long, these 14 quartet pieces range across the spectrum without forsaking an implied intimacy that always engages her listeners immediately. Disc one’s opener, “Cicada,” is songlike in its unfolding, adorned with brushed drum fills, chord voicings that unveil themselves gradually, and a bassline that is as melodic as it is rhythmic. By contrast, “Walkingstick” begins abstractly before undergoing a kind of processional transformation with elliptical percussion. “Fox” is a hard-swinging post-bop number that illuminates the high level of interplay between the rhythm section’s players. “Rattlesnake” is a vanguard ballad that floats in time as Andersen and Eckemoff trace an off-minor frame, allowing spaces between instruments to become part of the flow of improvisation. Disc two’s opener, “Hedgehog,” marries folk song to classical harmony and jazz syncopation with a studied yet mischievous elegance. Andersen’s intro bassline in “Lynx” is almost funky, but the piece unfolds as a knotty series of interlocking grooves that evoke drama, caress the blues, and evoke a sense of lyricism akin to that of Francy Boland or Gil Evans. By contrast, “Toad” is nearly majestic in its explication. Closer “Sea Turtle” emerges from the dimly lit shadows in an expressionist conversation framed not by the composer’s elliptical lyricism, but through Andersen’s up-mixed bassline that serves as a complement and counterpoint above the two drummers/percussionists that cannily dialogues with itself as much as it does the frontline players. Nocturnal Animals is supplemented by Eckemoff’s evocative free verse; her poetry allows these pieces to enter the world directly, in a variety of sonic dialects. Nocturnal Animals reveals Eckemoff in a heightened state of jazz discovery; it edifies, questions, and ultimately illumines the inherent darkness, mystery, and spirituality of the natural world.