She was born and raised in Moscow, emigrated with her family to North Carolina, and knows of deserts mainly from books. But if you think Yelena Eckemoff’s lack of direct exposure to Bedouins, sand dunes, and dust storms would keep her from recording a work that evokes those things, you don’t know the power of this pianist-composer’s imagination.
Desert, Eckemoff’s latest in a string of sweeping concept albums, captures the Arabian Desert in all its mystery and natural allure not only with its 11 thematically linked compositions, but also with original poems, prose, and (as she frequently provides) album art.
“When the coils of Time were dissolved/The desert endured,” she writes in one of the poems. “Once the magnificent sun, the source of life/Ceased to shine/The desert was still there.”
Featuring Oregon oboist Paul McCandless, Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, and super-versatile drummer Peter Erskine—all celebrated veterans of ECM, the German label whose ethereal sound is frequently invoked in discussions of Eckemoff—Desert is a culmination of her lyrical blend of jazz and classical music. (She leans toward Bach, Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel more than Russian composers.)
But Eckemoff has been imprinted by her Russian soul, vivid memories of the picture books with which she entertained herself as an only child, and what she calls the “sinuous” nature of her personal narrative. With her modern, sometimes free-leaning approach and the weight and intensity her music attains, Eckemoff and her music are strikingly original.
“I’m a very emotional person,” she says. “So many things have vanished from my life. When you express these things in your music, when you share your experiences, you compensate for your losses. Music makes you whole again.”
With its curling lines, seductive feeling, and slow-building drama, “Dance” builds a subtle bridge between Arabic music and jazz. “Mirages” ventures outside the mainstream with the leader’s swirling, dissonant chords and spatial adventures. On “Dust Storm,” the quartet evokes the calm before the drama with its spare reflections, signifying a change in atmosphere via McCandless’s shift from oboe to bass clarinet. (Desert also features him on English horn and soprano saxophone.)
One of the great things about the prolific Eckemoff, who put out numerous albums, some of them classical, before making her bona fide jazz debut eight years ago, is you never know where she’s going. The song titles on Desert only begin to suggest the larger themes that emerge.
One key to her artistry is her dedication to sounds that has many intertwined threads. “I haven’t composed much for solo piano,” she says. “I’m always hearing instruments and the ways they go together.”
Though you could easily imagine her coloristic pieces being performed by a Maria Schneider-type big band, she strongly prefers the intimacy of small groups. “I’m not interested in larger ensembles,” she says. “I don’t feel a need to involve that many players.”
Born in Moscow, Yelena Eckemoff says she has been composing since she was four years old. The first music impressions she took from her mother, a pianist and teacher. Then years of academic studies at Gnessins School for musically gifted children, followed by the Moscow Conservatory, provided a solid background in classical music. But as Yelena grew into her teens, she developed an interest in other musical styles, like pop, rock, and jazz.
“Listening to all kinds of different music was a source of inspiration for me as a composer and broadened my compositional language,” she says. “Almost every day, I wrote a new tune. I was always learning new tricks.”
This was at a time when jazz recordings were so hard to come by in Russia, people were smuggling tapes into the country. In 1987, in a pivotal moment for Yelena and many other Russian musicians, she attended Dave Brubeck’s legendary concert in Moscow. His quartet performed a series of concerts in the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange.
She had already started playing jazz before seeing Brubeck, mainly traditional styles and bebop, sometimes via chance connections with musicians who came from abroad. But this was one of the first jazz performances she had ever attended.
She was so impressed that she formed her own band and “tried to play jazz.” But her songs proved too complicated for her fellow musicians (and have gotten no easier, as McCandless, Andersen, and Erskine all attested in a videotaped interview after recording Desert).
After emigrating to the United States in 1991—to their anguish, Eckemoff and her husband, young parents, temporarily had to leave their three little sons behind—she didn’t have the time or focus to pick up where she had left off with her jazz aspirations. She wasn’t exposed to much jazz—she didn’t have the money to invest in buying any recordings aside from a few cassettes—which may help explain her individuality as a jazz artist.
But while raising her children, she was able to play and compose some in her small home studio. And when they had grown up a little, she put together a band, with which she began to draw attention. She recorded a CD The Call featuring cello, flute and drums and performed with her band on a local scene. But the musicianship of her teammates, she says, still left something to be desired.
When people told her she had an ECM sound, she says, “I didn’t know what that was.” But she was soon listening to ECM artists like Bobo Stenson and John Taylor. “When I heard Arild Andersen, he left such a deep impression on me,” she says, “I dared to imagine playing with him.”
During her initial pursuit of a bass player, she looked left and right before deciding to send some of her new tunes to another prominent Scandinavian bassist, Denmark’s Mads Vinding, who had accompanied expatriated American greats including Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer, and Kenny Drew.
Vinding recorded his bass parts in Denmark for Eckemoff's winter-themed piano-bass-drums effort, Cold Sun, and its spring-themed follow-up, Grass Catching the Wind (both released in 2010). “It sounded so cool,” she says.
But as pleased as she was with the intercontinental, bicoastal recordings, the first of which featured Peter Erskine on drums and the second Denmark’s Morten Lund, she knew she had to record her music in the live presence of a real trio. That dream became a reality when she flew to Los Angeles to record Flying Steps in the flesh with Erskine, whom she had met through connections, and Polish bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz.
“For me,” she says, “Peter was the beginning and ending of what I wanted to do with my music. Since then, I’ve been so excited about recording jazz, or whatever you want to call it! Peter called it a ‘new kind of music.’”
Touched by such styles as blues, jazz-rock fusion, and the occasional funk, Eckemoff’s albums have ranged far and wide while continuing to deal in high concepts. Glass Song (2013), the first of her albums to team Andersen and Erskine (who surprisingly had never previously played together), is an environmental treat boasting songs about rain, melting ice and clouds.
Lions (2015), featuring Andersen and drummer Billy Hart, captures life in the savanna with songs about those glorious animals and their cubs as well as migrating birds and tropical rains.
“As my imagination grew wilder, I started to fantasize about escaping the human world and turning into a lioness myself,” she says. “My fantasies were so vivid at times that even now I have my doubts that the story ... was just a figment of my imagination.”
For Desert, Eckemoff read extensively about the subject, including several books about Bedouins. “I wanted to know what kind of people they are,” she says. “How is it that they’ve managed to change with the times, finding freedom in such harsh conditions. I wanted to capture the true soul of Bedouins.
“I may never have been to the Arabian Desert, but maybe I have a genetic memory of it,” she adds, relating to the fact that she has some Persian blood in her.
In envisioning the recording of Desert, she says, she entertained the notion of going to Dubai and setting up shop in the desert. “I like to dream big,” she says. “But it was too expensive to realize that kind of vision.
“I thought, who in America would be the best fit for this project? I thought of Paul and his oboe, on which he is so expressive, and decided this is the sound I wanted. Peter helped me connect with Paul, who really is the reason for this group.
“As for Arild and Peter, they had just the right voices for my melodies and compositions. I feel like when I have these guys around, I can do anything.”
As indicated by the presence on her albums of so many distinguished players—her 2014 gem, A Touch of Radiance, dedicated to no less a force than happiness, features Mark Turner, Joe Locke, George Mraz, and Billy Hart and she also has recorded with Chris Potter, Mark Feldman, and Jon Christensen—more and more musicians are feeling the same way about working with one of Russia’s great gifts to America. As Erskine put it after the Desert recording session, “Yelena brings out the best in all of us.” •