Pianist-composer Yelena Eckemoff
adds another link to her chain of thoughtful concept albums with Nocturnal Animals
, which her own L&H Production imprint will release on January 24. True to its title, the double album features 14 musical impressions of the creatures that rule the night. The pieces are brought to life by a quartet that places Eckemoff alongside bassist Arild Andersen
and drummers Jon Christensen
and Thomas Strønen
Eckemoff is fond of creating these sorts of sonic portrait galleries. Prior albums have explored such disparate subjects as the desert, the biblical psalms, and colors. Yet never before has the North Carolina (by way of Moscow) pianist taken on such an array of wild beasts. Appropriately, however, Nocturnal Animals
teems with life: in the music, of course, but also in the free-verse poems that Eckemoff has written as supplements to each of the album’s compositions.
“No one knows how and what animals think,” she says. “But in my poetic writing about them I perceive each one as a being with an intriguing personality, and they all think and act similarly to how people would in certain situations.”
That personification is manifest in the gripping suspense of “Bat,” the sly but stealthy swing of “Fox,” the roaming, appropriately glimmering “Firefly,” and the graceful, determined “Sea Turtle.” A number of pieces take on surprising dimensions that depart from our received wisdom about these animals. “Walkingstick,” for example, has a supple, delicate beauty that offsets its strange syncopations; “Toad” is stately and majestic; and “Scorpion” has tinges of warmth and empathy enfolded into its moody, mysterious structures.
In short, Nocturnal Animals
conveys a tremendous amount of nuance, thanks for which go to the musicians who help Eckemoff to execute her vision. Andersen, with whom the pianist has the longest collaborative relationship, acts largely as a second or counter-melodist for her, while the dual drummers draw rhythmic designs around each of them (and each other). “Jon is so unique, so insanely original; he doesn’t play patterns or beats, he plays around the beat, against the beat, building layers,” Eckemoff explains. “Thomas grew up listening to Jon. If anyone could work together with him, it was Thomas…. You can hear how differently they play and at the same time marvel at their remarkable compatibility and interplay.”
Yelena Eckemoff was born in Moscow, where she started playing by ear and composing music when she was four. By seven, she was attending the Gnessins School for musically gifted children. But while she was thus groomed for classical musicianship, including piano studies at Moscow State Conservatory, Eckemoff wanted to rock and roll.
Her love of rock music included Mahavishnu Orchestra
, which helped lead her to jazz in her twenties. That new passion was sealed when Eckemoff attended Dave Brubeck’s 1987 concert in Moscow. The experience reconfigured her composing and playing, and led her to form a jazz band.
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 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
. Nocturnal Animals
is the pianist-composer’s 15th release in ten years, demonstrating her extraordinary (and seemingly never-ending) fount of inspiration. “There are so many ideas going through my head at any given time,” Eckemoff says. “I don’t know what I’ll explore next.”