By Dan Bilawsky
When pianist Yelena Eckemoff released Cold Sun
(L & H Production, 2010)—a trio date with drumming legend Peter Erskine
and Danish bass whiz Mads Vinding
—the jazz world was introduced to a startlingly fresh voice destined for great things. Over the course of the six albums that followed, Eckemoff lived up to that promise, delivering organically-crafted music reflective of her classical background, fascination with the natural world, poetic soul, communicative spirit, and overall open-mindedness. Now, Eckemoff is poised to make even more waves with the spellbinding Everblue
, her third in-studio encounter with Norwegian bass icon Arild Andersen
and her first musical meeting with two other Norwegians of note—drummer Jon Christensen
and saxophonist Tore Brunborg
Those familiar with the background of Eckemoff’s musical partners will likely be aware of their shared history, as Andersen and Christensen were both key players in Jan Garbarek's groundbreaking musical odysseys in the early '70s and all three men were involved in the band called Masqualero. But none of that has to do with Eckemoff’s motives for joining forces with this Norwegian dream team. Instead, she simply notes that she chose to work with these musicians because they “would be the best match to interpret the ideas for the Everblue project.”
The musical affinity that exists between Eckemoff and Andersen is already abundantly clear, having been demonstrated on two beautifully rendered trio outings—Glass Song
(L & H Production, 2013), with Peter Erskine on drums, and Lions
(L & H Production, 2015), with Billy Hart on drums. Here, on Everblue
, their rapport is deepened and broadened, as both players seem to resonate sympathetically throughout. While Eckemoff has worked with a number of fine bassists in the past, including Vinding and George Mraz, her relationship with Andersen helps to take her work to another level; it’s a relationship that, she notes, plays out like “an interactive conversation.”
In summing up her reasoning for choosing to bring Christensen and Brunborg into her musical orbit on Everblue
, Eckemoff cites both players’ elemental qualities: she likens Christensen to “an ocean” and she views Brunborg as “the voice of nature: animals, birds, winds, and ghosts.” When merged with her own “wondering and contemplative spirit” and Andersen’s deeply resonating bass work—“a bridge between all of us,” according to the architect herself—the results are mesmerizing.
, Eckemoff doesn’t simply present a set of tunes: she presents an overarching musical concept that guides this voyage. “Part of our human consciousness constantly searches and yearns for the divine, unspeakably beautiful, eternal,” she notes. “In my world, I call this place Everblue.” It’s a concept and a world that’s plainly laid out in her poetry and music, as everything is drawn around beaches and oceans. And it’s a concept within that concept—the search for beauty—that informs this journey of faith and discovery.
From the first reflective notes of the title track, it’s clear that the value of this music is in the travel. As that number unfolds, there’s prayerful saxophone work to observe, glistening sounds to admire, and rustling percussion to behold. Thoughts of “cool sapphire light,” “azure skies,” and a “cobalt ocean”—all mentioned in the “Everblue” poem—come through clearly in the music. With “All Things, Seen And Unseen,” Eckemoff establishes a firm presence, providing counterpoint and communing with the musical spirits and her band mates. Here, Christensen manages to position his cymbal work against the beat and Andersen manages to achieve an intriguing duality that carries across the album: he comes off as a commanding force while also managing to exist as a wholly malleable musical entity.
Eckemoff brings a touch of minimalism into the picture with her rolling triplets on “Waves & Shells,” a number that can be said to be “moving” in more ways than one. Some call-and-response interaction bookends the piece, yet it’s not central to the story. More important are Christensen’s mid-track percussive serenade and Andersen’s thoughts of the moment. From there, it’s off to “Skyline,” a number that ebbs and flows in organic fashion as musical voices gently lap against one another and starry-eyed piano charms and disarms, and “Sea-Breeze,” a world built with broken eighth-note lines, cymbal-ic gestures delivered in the nooks between beats, bright thoughts, and strong solo work from Eckemoff and Andersen.
“Prism” and “Man,” arriving next in the running order, both come from the musically fertile mind of Arild Andersen. By including these pieces, Eckemoff makes a slight departure from her previous releases: she exhibits a high level of trust, as this marks the first time that she’s included somebody else’s work on one of her jazz albums. That trust pays off handsomely in this case. Both pieces, while originally written for other settings, manage to sonically embody the philosophy behind this album. “Prism” was originally recorded on The Triangle
(ECM, 2004)—a trio outing that found Andersen working with pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and drummer John Marshall. Here, with Christensen and Brunborg, Andersen notes, “it felt natural to do the song looser and more free in tempo.” This change in direction gives the piece a wholly different character, as Eckemoff and company deliver a dose of abstract realism, with lightly rippled gestures, peaceful moments of clarity, and highly pronounced colors coming to the surface. “Man,” Andersen states, “was written for a short film some years back and I had never recorded it before.” The bassist admits that it never struck him as being a jazz vehicle, but this band manages to shape it as such. Pockets of energy seem to magically emerge and then recede into the distance on this fascinating number. In the end, “Man” proves to be one of the album’s standout performances, cloaked in mystery and built on high-level interaction.
The remaining tracks, as with the aforementioned material, all highlight the simpatico sensibilities of these players and their individual talents. “Abyss” brings the Eckemoff-Andersen relationship into sharp focus; “Ghost Of The Dunes” penetrates, with Eckemoff’s two-handed angular work and a strong sense of connectivity between Brunborg and Andersen on display; and “Blue Lamp” is a patient and elegant sendoff, complete with firm yet pliant gestures. In most of those cases, and on nearly every track on the album, Eckemoff manages to present melodically lucid thoughts bathed in ethereal waters. In doing so, she affirms her love of direct expression and atmosphere while also bucking the fragmented-thoughts-are-better trend that’s prevalent in the work of so many A-list piano players operating today. It’s just one of the many ways that Eckemoff stands apart in musical terms.
Over the course of the past five years, Eckemoff has managed to evolve into one of the most uniquely expressive artists operating in jazz. But the last five years don’t tell the whole story. Yelena Eckemoff was born and raised in Moscow, Russia, where she excelled early on at the piano. She furthered her studies at the Moscow Conservatory, where she received extensive classical training, but she eventually put her artistic ambitions aside to focus on raising her children. After a move to the United States and a period of relative artistic silence, she came roaring back to music, recording more than a dozen albums—works that touch on classical music, Russian songs, and original compositions—between 1993 and 2009. While her interest in jazz grew during those years, it was only a private pursuit. In 2010, however, she took her jazz ambitions public, releasing Cold Sun
. That got the ball rolling and a flurry of incredible musical activity followed. Six more albums arrived in short succession, each managing to turn more heads as the critics and listening public took note. Now, with the coming of Everblue
, Yelena Eckemoff is set to win over a larger audience. Praise for Yelena Eckemoff
Eckemoff’s classical background is audible in the intricacy and proportion and refinement of each song’s design, and in the measured caution of her improvisations. But she is more romantic impressionist than academic. Her forms, for all their order and precision, are heartfelt." —Thomas Conrad