Haunting, Icy Mood Pieces from Yelena Eckemoff
Russian-American pianist Yelena Eckemoff has made a career out of icily resonant, otherworldly themes that unwind at a glacial pace. Anyone who might hear her new album Glass Song and think “Windham Hill” isn’t listening closely enough. As brooding mood pieces go, this is just about as good as it gets: that the album’s catchiest and most upbeat track is titled Elegy pretty much says it all. The opening track, Melting Ice is characteristic. It begins so imperceptibly it’s almost unnoticeable, and then Eckemoff immediately engages Arild Andersen’s bass in a slow, prophetic conversation before the thaw sets in and the blues makes its way in through the cracks. Then they do it again, and again. What emerges is an uneasy blend of morose Satie-esque chromatics and casually bluesy tonalities.
The title track is even slower and more minimalist, Andersen’s wispy, keening overtones and tersely swooping accents mingling with the glimmer behind him as Eckemoff builds to a distantly imploring ambience that reminds of the Joy Division classic The Eternal. Throughout the album, drummer Peter Erskine adds the subtlest shades of grey, and occasional swashes of black. As any drummer will tell you, music this slow and spare can be murder to play. Here he introduces a whispered clave beat in the last place where you would expect to find anything tropical – and it works like a charm.
Cloud Break, laced with more of those deliciously creepy chromatics, follows a similar path out of a slow, suspenseful shuffle that Eckemoff ornaments with Lynchian lounge-isms as the bass and drums work hypnotic polyrhythms. Polarity grows from minimalistic otherworodly bass/piano interchanges to a plaintively deliberate, syncopated sway, as close to the hint of a bounce as there is here.
Dripping Icicles is a deceptively simple, surprisingly lively noir blues livened with Erskine’s masterfully suspenseful snare and Eckemoff’s refusenik ripples, reaching tantalizingly toward a resolution that’s always just out of reach. Sweet Dreams seems to be a rather sarcastic title: the ballad is as memorably dark as everything that precedes it.
Whistle Song takes the creepiness up a couple of octaves, yet the mood never wavers. Sunny Day in the Woods is more summery, but even this is a nocturne, Eckemoff juxtaposing lingering phrases against insistent upper-register raindroplets that mingle with the bass. This long, practically hour-and-a-quarter length album ends where it began with March Rain, which keeps the pace going, but with the bass rather than the piano, which remains mostly in a distant, desolate, reserved seat in the shadows. Although marketed as jazz – which this certainly could be called- another crowd this should resonate mightily with is fans of indie classical composers like Michael Gordon and Kirsten Broberg.
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