Pianist Yelena Eckemoff is a major jazz talent yet to receive the critical attention she deserves. Soviet-born, trained in one of the country’s finest conservatory, she took time off from music to raise her family and then fled the USSR with her husband, finally returning to music in midlife with formidable technique and ample life experiences to convey. “A Touch of Radiance is her 14th release of what she calls “original instrumental music,” an inapt label for her genre-defying style, which combines the harmonic textures and compositional rigor of European classical music with the indeterminacy of jazz. Joined by the stellar team of Mark Turner (tenor sax), Joe Locke (vibes), George Mraz (bass) and Billy Hart (drums), Eckemoff leads her group through a moody suite of songs, many with compelling melodies performed at floating tempos over arrangements that deemphasize solo statements in favor of group interchange. Locke’s vibraphone, for example, often plays intertwining minimalist loops and Eckemoff ‘s accompaniments contain many ideas that could stand on their own. Turner, a powerful voice in his own right, is heard to great effect on cuts like “Pep,” “Reconciliation” (one of Eckemoff’s most memorable compositions) and “Radiance,” where, confined to shorter statements that complement t the song structures, he nevertheless makes his presence felt.
Eckemoff gave an album release show last month at Jazz Standard supported by a revamped quartet: Mraz, Donny McCaslin taking over tenor sax duties and Eric McPherson sitting in on drums. Prominently displayed center-stage was Eckemoff’s lurid painting of a sunset that graces the album cover. The set featured seven of the album’s ten tracks, sounding a bit more like a blowing session than the formal atmosphere of the recording. Live, Eckemoff showed herself to be an imaginative if somewhat introverted soloist. Like Turner, McCaslin is a powerful stylist, taking consistently strong solos that invariably evoked crowd responses, especially on “Pep” and “Imagination”, though other times the audience was more subdued, lulled perhaps by the ebb and flow of Eckemoff’s compositions.