Lucid Culture


Individualistic Pianist Yelena Eckemoff Brings the Lights Up..A Little

Pianist Yelena Eckemoff inhabits the eerie netherworld somewhere between jazz, classical and film music. Russian-born, classically trained, jazz-inclined, she’s one of this era’s most individualistic and instantly recognizable artists. Her back catalog is full of icily intense, glacial themes that are the essence of noir. She’s got a new album, A Touch of Radiance, which raises the luminosity factor to the level of the aurora borealis…maybe. She and the band on the album are playing the release show at the Jazz Standard at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on August 12; cover is $20 and well worth it (and the venue has delicious food).

Eckemoff has assembled a brave choice of supporting cast. Vibraphonist Joe Locke is one of the most gripping, intense players in all of jazz and one of the standout soloists in Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans rarities band. Drummer Billy Hart is the motive force behind the Cookers, arguably the best postbop jazz group alive. Tenor sax player Mark Turner can play anything but is inclined toward the avant garde: he’s got a Jazz Standard gig coming up in September and an album out on ECM. Bassist George Mraz has a checkered past and does a lot to redeem himself here. There’s ostensibly an autobiographical tangent to the album, although the songs and the moods drift from it – which makes it all the more interesting.

The opening track starts with a morosely twinkling intro that quickly morphs into a strolling swing groove that still has Eckemoff looking over her shoulder: the trouble is not over yet, and the pairing with Locke’s vibraphone magnifies the eerie glimmer a thousand times over. It’s a brilliant touch that fits Eckemoff to a T (anybody remember that Twin Peaks movie theme that Locke did with Bill Mays?). They go back to creepy at the end.

The album’s second cut blends blues into Eckemoff’s wounded, shattered motives, Turner taking a pensively hazy solo early on, Mraz driving a dubwise pulse until Eckemoff decides to go for a bit of a bluesy swing before turning it over to Locke, who teams with Hart and says the hell with sadness. But then Hart brings back the sepulchral gloom, all by himself! Who would have thought he had it in him?

Track three is a very effective small-group take on Gil Evans bossa noir. Any exuberance here is credit to Turner, Locke seizing the chance to take it back into the shadows even while the band is quietly swinging. The fourth cut evokes Frank Carlberg at his most evilly phantasmagorical (like on his amazing Tivoli Trio album): this time, everybody is in it, Turner leading the way, Locke close behind. If this is love, then we’re all doomed.

The next cut bounces along heavily. As a cr0ss-genre mashup, it’s sort of the jazz equivalent of a Finnish surf rock song, Eckemoff and Turner jumping at the chance to leap through a series of minor changes and an absolutely creepy, jungly rhythmic thicket. After that, the band sways and swooshes with a Baltic chill through a shapeshifting waltz. The following track is hilarious: ponderous funk and then disco, on this otherwise brutally serious album? The band keeps a poker face all the way through.

Track eight, Tranquility (song titles are an afterthought in the Eckemoff book) has Turner and Locke hinting at balminess before Eckemoff brings it down to earth. It’s a cool (well, chilly) contrast between African-American jazz and Russian classical idioms. Hart’s chill clave drive gives the next track, a low-key, first-gear Mack truck diesel groove. It’s like a portrait of this year’s New York summer: hot days, mercifully cool nights. After all the gravitas, Eckemoff finally achieves the synthesis she’s been shooting for with the title track, a cinematic, crescendoing theme that would have worked for a late-night 70s sitcom (maybe one with a vampire).

Throughout the album, Eckemoff plays with sepulchrally confident chops and an unassailable upper-register glimmer: she’s never met a spiraling icicle phrase she couldn’t nail. For people who like nine-minute songs, and dark music in general, this is one of those rare albums that’s an absolute must-own – and one of the best of 2014.Stream it at Eckemoff’s webpage and decide for yourself.

August 10, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

January 19, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment