Pianist-composer Yelena Eckemoff
casts her eye on the visible spectrum with Colors
, her third album in just over a year, set for a February 22 release on her own L&H Production label. Accompanied only by the brilliant French drummer Manu Katche
, Eckemoff creates musical impressions of 14 distinct hues, organizing them into a symbolic progression through the stages of life—using a panoply of styles as diverse as the spectrum itself. Colors
is both a popular title and subject in the jazz world, placing Eckemoff into a tradition that extends from Ellington’s magnum opus “Black, Brown and Beige” to Miles Davis
’s late-period suite Aura
. The Russian-born pianist’s conception is unique, however. There is striking originality in its stylistic breadth, its intimate duet setting, and its panoramic view of the human life span—which Eckemoff also maps with a series of free-verse poems that correspond to each color and composition.
“Ultimately, everything is filtered through my inner feelings and expressed through melody and harmony, but this isn’t about me,” says Eckemoff. “I deliberately avoided any autobiographical references. It’s about the average course of anyone’s life.”
That course runs from the “White” of birth’s blank slate to the “Black” of death’s unknowable void. The path within this framework, however, deviates from the basic light-to-dark progression that it suggests. “White” is followed by “Pink,” representing an infant’s discovery and perception of the world; “Orange” is the burst of youthful energy; “Violet” is the thrill of first love. As the life matures, a more sophisticated palette comes into play: “Bordeaux” portrays a bottle of wine as a nuanced metaphor for an aging mind and body, while “Aquamarine” evokes the ocean, along with an array of associated memories and sentiments.
Eckemoff’s playing style similarly zigzags from point to disparate point, according to the moods and ideas expressed in each piece. Where “Indigo” is grim jazz-rock, “Blue” evolves from an exquisite lyrical ballad into a violent emotional storm, to be followed by the sultry but playful passions of “Red” and “Brown”’s whimsical waltz of inspiration.
The range of ideas in the music is informed by Eckemoff’s work with drummer Katché, whose remarkable individuality made him a natural fit for the project. “He’s always searching for grooves, while my music is a combination of structured and improvisational approaches,” she says. “This was exactly what I wanted—the groovy, spicy drums which would be a world in themselves and not merely following the piano.”
Yelena Eckemoff was born in Moscow, where she started playing by ear and composing music when she was four and attended Gnessins School for musically gifted children. During her teens she became devoted to rock music, even as she studied classical piano at Moscow State Conservatory.
In her early twenties, her eclectic musical interests extended into jazz. The standard repertoire was her primary teacher, though she applied those lessons to the writing of new tunes. Eckemoff’s witnessing of Dave Brubeck’s 1987 concert in Moscow, however, changed her life, leading directly to the formation of her first band that “tried to play jazz.”
Playing jazz proved to be a difficult proposition, due both to the complexity of her compositions and to the repressive nature of the Soviet regime. On the latter issue, she devoted herself (at great personal cost) to obtaining a U.S. visa, finally doing so in 1991 and settling in North Carolina.
The former was a matter of finding high-caliber musicians to play with, which she would also eventually achieve. Cold Sun
, her 2010 debut jazz recording, featured the great Danish bassist Mads Vinding and the legendary American drummer Peter Erskine. By the time of 2018’s Better Than Gold and Silver
, she was able to attract an all-star lineup that included the likes of trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron.
Then came Colors
, and the chance to work with Katché—at which she jumped, knowing the strength of their musical connection. “I felt the closeness of our souls,” she says, “and thought that it would be a pleasant and exciting challenge to make this record with him.”
Yelena Eckemoff will perform a solo piano concert at the Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, on Wednesday 2/27, and at KITO Vegesack, Bremen, Germany, on Thursday 4/25.