Feb 2019

Press Release:

Having captured the Arabian Desert in all its mystery on Desert (featuring Paul McCandless, Arild Andersen, and Peter Erskine) and adapted Biblical psalms as jazz gospel on Better Than Gold and Silver (its cast included Ralph Alessi, Ben Monder, and Joey Baron), Eckemoff waxes her impressions of the color spectrum on her latest gem, Colors, teaming up with celebrated French drummer Manu Katché.

 It’s her third album in slightly more than 12 months, including a double CD. The recordings, released on her own L & H Production label, reflect not only the Russian-born pianist and composer’s creative drive, but also her seemingly limitless imagination.

 Why colors? “I like to challenge myself to express things musically,” she says. “I wrote about smells once [for her 2016 album, Blooming Tall Phlox]. I figured, why not colors afterwards?”

 Other jazz artists have recorded albums based on colors. What distinguishes Colors is the radiant lyricism, orchestral sweep, and subtle blending of styles in Eckemoff’s playing, here heard to better advantage than ever. She thrives in the spare setting, taking full advantage of the freedom it allows and the intimacy between herself and the listener afforded by the two-person format.

 Each of the 14 colors she interprets represents a different stage in life, with the songs presented chronologically. The bright and delicate opener, “White,” is informed poetic reflections on the beginnings of existence. “The soul of a newborn is pure/Blank as a white canvas/Stretched on the frame/Waiting to be brushed with colors,” she writes in her poem.

“Once I decided I wanted to write songs about colors, I studied everything I could about them,” she says. “I collected all kinds of information. Ultimately, everything is filtered through my inner feelings and expressed through melody and harmony, but this isn’t about me; I deliberately avoided any autobiographical references. It’s about the average course of anyone’s life.”

 Colors is wide-ranging stylistically. Song 3, “Orange,” bursts from the speakers: “You are full of energy/You jump and run instead of walking/Like fire—quick and hungry, you claim everything that crosses your path.”

 Song 11, “Yellow,” on the other hand, is spare and affecting elegy for an elderly woman whose walk on the fallen leaves triggers her memories of finding “dry yellow leaves between the pages of her books,” hidden there by her mother.

 On song 6, “Indigo,” Eckemoff embraces jazz-rock—dig that left hand—with Katché's stop-and-start attack keeping things on the cutting edge.

 On the penultimate tune, “Grey,” she conjures late-life feelings with tender authority. “I have not gone through the late stages of my own life yet,” she explains, “but I closely watched many elderly people, including my dear parents, on their last years’ journey.”

 Eckemoff got the idea of making a piano/drums album, something she had never done before, after recording a track in that format on Desert with Peter Erskine. “I like the way drums can create an ambience around the piano,” she says, “while at the same time making interplay possible.”

 When she started assembling music for the two-person setting, she immediately thought of Katché, because she has always been attracted to his charismatic, passionate style of drumming. She says that her interest in Manu Katché was spiked when she happened to hear him live at his band’s performance at Jazz à Liège in 2013.

 “He’s equally at home with rock music as he is with jazz,” she says. “He’s always searching for grooves, while my music is a combination of structured and improvisational approaches. Yet this was exactly what I wanted—the groovy, spicy drums which would be a world in themselves and not merely following the piano as the thread follows the needle. I felt the closeness of our souls and thought that it would be a pleasant and exciting challenge to make this record with him.”

 After Katché listened to sample tunes she sent him, she says, he became excited about the project, especially since he had never recorded a duo format with piano either. He had planned one with pianist Keith Jarrett years ago, but it never materialized.

 Recorded at Studios la Buissonne in Pernes-les-Fontaines in Provence, where many great jazz albums were made, Colors is ambient in the best sense, sparked by lively interactions between the musicians.

 Born in Moscow at a time when jazz recordings were banned and difficult to find in her country, Yelena started playing by ear and composing music when she was four and attended Gnessins School for musically gifted children, studying piano with the renowned teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor.

 During her teens, she became devoted to the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and other popular groups and began performing in rock bands. She studied classical piano at Moscow State Conservatory, but maintained her interest in other styles of music. She began studying jazz in her early twenties, mostly playing evergreen standards. But, she says, “Almost every day, I wrote a new tune. I was always learning new tricks from the jazz records I was able to listen to.” 

She had her head turned when she attended the American legend Dave Brubeck’s historic 1987 concert in Moscow, part of a cultural exchange. It was the first jazz performance she had ever been to. She was so impressed that she formed her own band and “tried to play jazz.” But her original tunes proved too complicated for her fellow musicians. 

As she recounts in her moving liner notes for Better Than Gold and Silver, her determined efforts to leave Russia were marked by pain and sacrifice. She began the process by mailing dozens of letters to various Christian churches in English-speaking countries asking for help. She received 10 positive responses from the U.S. and Canada, but learned that in order to obtain visas for herself and her husband, she was required to find a sponsor who would issue them a notarized invitation to come visit as guests. 

And after receiving such an invitation from the elderly widow of a priest in North Carolina, she was informed by Russian officials that she and her husband would have to leave their three young sons behind as “proof” that the parents would return. No less than 14 months later, through the efforts of a U.S. congressman, Eckemoff’s mother was granted visas to take the boys to North Carolina. She had been turned down three previous times, “like in a fairy tale,” says Yelena.

It took a while before she had the time or focus to pick up where she had left off with her musical aspirations. But as her children got older, she was able to play and compose tunes that she recorded in a modest studio she put together for herself. She formed a band with local musicians to play her pieces and began to draw attention.  

Eckemoff’s initial recordings with her local ensemble were good vehicles for her writing for performing band, but the musicianship again left something to be desired, especially after she began listening to albums by such ECM artists as pianists Bobo Stenson and John Taylor and bassist Arild Andersen, “who left such a deep impression on me, I dared to imagine playing with him.”

The dream would become reality. But she first sent some of her tunes to another Scandinavian bassist, Mads Vinding. He recorded his parts for her winter-themed 2010 trio effort, Cold Sun, in his native Denmark. Peter Erskine, who liked the piano/bass tracks with Vinding she sent to him, recorded his drum parts in Los Angeles. For her spring-themed sequel, Grass Catching the Wind, she collaborated long-distance with Vinding and Danish drummer Morten Lund.

As pleased as Eckemoff was with the two recordings, she knew she had to record her music in the live presence of her bandmates. Her aspirations came true when she flew to Los Angeles to record Flying Steps (2011) with Erskine and Polish bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz. 

Touched by blues, jazz-rock fusion, and free jazz, Eckemoff’s subsequent albums have basked in high concepts. Glass Song (2013), her first album with Andersen (and, surprisingly, the first project to bring together Andersen and Erskine), boasts songs about rain, melting ice, and clouds.  

The pianist’s 2014 gem, A Touch of Radiance—dedicated to various imprints of happiness—features Mark Turner, Joe Locke, George Mraz, and Billy Hart. Andersen and Hart were aboard for Lions (2015), her musical imagining of life in the savanna.

The albums kept coming, each one different than its predecessor. The second release of 2015 was spellbound Everblue, a Norwegian quartet with Tore Brunborg (sax), Arild Andersen, and Jon Christensen (drums). Leaving Everything Behind (2016) featured violinist Mark Feldman; Blooming Tall Phlox (2017) showcased Finnish artists such as horn player Verneri Pohjola; the double album In the Shadow of a Cloud (2017) boasted a killer band including saxophonist Chris Potter and guitarist Adam Rogers.

Then came Desert and Better Than Gold and Silver, which intriguingly offers two complete readings of the same material. On the first disc, Eckemoff’s all-star jazz band backs a pair of terrific young classical/new music singers, tenor Tomás Cruz and mezzo-soprano Kim Mayo. On the second disc, the jazz group (also including violinist Christian Howes and bassist Drew Gress) gets to improvise to a greater degree, sans vocalists.

With much already composed music waiting to be recorded and exciting new projects she is planning now, it’s safe to say we'll be hearing more about the spiritual and musical life of this unique artist. 

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