“Everything from the West was prohibited at that time, and jazz was one of those things. But there was a jazz studio formed by some activists who were also professional musicians and we studied traditional jazz. I used jazz principles in my composing, which put me on a different path from other musicians.” –Yelena Eckemoff
Jazz is a listener’s music. Whether you sit still and groove to an artfully composed trajectory, or you’re onstage with other musicians trying to bounce ideas off one another in real time, jazz depends on the ability to hear and translate everyday form into extraordinary soundtrack.
Moscow-born pianist and composer Yelena Eckemoff, together with her dream recording band — American percussionist Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell) and Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen (Jan Garbarek Quartet, ECM) — do just this in the Feb. 19, 2013 release, Glass Song.
Released in the dead of winter, Glass Song delves into the first crack of ice as the warming sun heralds the promise and hope of spring and new life. These are concepts Eckemoff understands well. She’s lived them, as a Russian refugee.
The classically trained concert pianist couldn’t take the hard life of the Soviet Union any longer and fled to America with her husband, forced to leave behind their three children briefly. Imagine the hearbreak. “That was the hardest thing I ever did, but we had the drive to leave Russia. It was a very hard and scary thing to do, but it worked out and we never regretted it. It ended up helping me in my musical development because I had much deeper spiritual experiences because of it.”
Those deeper spiritual experiences are in every original composition from this L&H Production. Glass Song is a reflection of Eckemoff’s two passions: the classical music she was raised on and the jazz she wasn’t allowed to listen to in the Soviet Union, but listened to anyway, as a part of a group of musical activists. “Everything from the West was prohibited at that time, and jazz was one of those things,” Eckemoff remembered. “But there was a jazz studio formed by some activists who were also professional musicians and we studied traditional jazz. I used jazz principles in my composing, which put me on a different path from other musicians.”
Eckemoff chose well when she aligned herself with the likes of Erskine and Andersen, two masters of intimate, intuitive, interactive in-depth jazz. They morph their instruments into whatever Eckemoff’s compositions require to pull off an exquisite, fragile, reflective vision of the human quest for freedom.
Eckemoff, Erskine, and Andersen do what many jazz stars purport to do. They really look at the object of the song, the point of inspiration, and they let it tell them what to play — all while holding a loose but loving grip on a faint, fluid, and unforgettable melody. “March Rain” is a living example of this uncanny ability. The musicians fairly disappear into each rain drop with delicate thunder, illustrating wordlessly the immense stories between the formation and the fall.
Most of the “Glass Songs” seem on the surface to reflect nature, “Melting Ice,” “Cloud Break,” “Dripping Icicles,” “Sunny Day In The Woods…” But Eckemoff would like the listener to lean in and hear more. “I get inspired by nature a lot, because everything comes from nature. But the observation of nature isn’t really my priority. I’ve had very, very rich experiences in my life, and the music I write expresses those feelings.”
Eckemoff translates her life experiences through the analogy of nature, humanizing the icicles, rain, clouds, and sun to reflect her own turmoil as an émigré and a survivor. She uses the harsh, relentless cold of winter that could represent the Soviet Union’s iron-fisted rule over its enslaved citizens, and the approaching spring as their way out. “The same way as spring is always certain to replace even the most severe winter, hope is eternally present in the least favorable situations and in all circumstances of life,” she said.
The title track is a perfect reflection of Eckemoff’s organic style, intrinsically sensitive nature, and ability to humanize her environment for the greater social message. It sounds like glass breaking free, finding a voice, and singing. Eckemoff took glasses filled with water to emphasize that feeling. The somber piano melody underplaying the miraculous movement of glass contrasts a sense of death with the burgeoning signs of life.
“Polarity” initially comes off as highly esoteric, perhaps better in a highbrow museum tucked away behind bulletproof glass. The music features high arch symbolism in the spare, dire creep of cymbal and the halting, timid sidestep of piano. But soon, the under-pinings of restlessness become transparent, as Andersen slips in on the rolling bass, tempting the others to drop the cold formality of polite, buttoned-up classicism in favor of free-form jazz improvisation — snuck in from the back, breaking the spell.
“Dripping Icicles” follows, almost a continuum to the tentative jazz steps, allowing Eckemoff to do a lot more on the piano, showing that transition from her classical upbringing to the freeing “corruption” of jazz. She handles her solos throughout this piece quite well, filling each space between the bass and the drums with a modern ballet, at once cascading and stomping in place. The bass and drums take turns, in a fine straight-ahead dance all their own.
“Some people dance, some people sing, some people write,” Eckemoff described. “When I feel something, I compose. It’s almost like I can’t stop it. My head is always filled with music. If I couldn’t write music I think I would just explode. Life is sometimes sad, but I find escape in writing music. I’m happy because I can do it.”
Artist quotes from a DL Media press release.