Pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff has produced a varied discography. But since her piano trio album Lions (L&H Production, 2015) she has tended towards larger ensembles. Leaving Everything Behind (L&H, 2016) and Desert (L&H, 2018) were both quartets; Blooming Tall Phlox (L&H, 2017) and In the Shadow of a Cloud (L&H, 2017) were quintets; and Better Than Gold And Silver (L&H, 2018) was a sextet (plus two vocalists for the vocal versions). So this is a surprising move: a duet with drummer Manu Katche, a new collaborator, and the only one in her discography given co-billing credit.
As always the album has a theme: in this case it is colors, with each track is assigned a title with a different hue. As the accompanying poems make clear, for Eckemoff colors have associations with specific life events, ranging chronologically from childbirth (white) to childhood (orange) to pregnancy (blue) to adulthood (red) to old age (grey). While composition is her main focus, the sparse instrumentation unavoidably focuses on her piano playing. Recent projects have had such an all-star atmosphere that listeners could be forgiven for checking the credits find out who is playing the piano. If nothing else this album re-establishes Eckemoff's central role as pianist as well as composer.
"White" is a gentle opener, impressionistic piano accompanied by brushes and light cymbals. "Orange" heats up with bluesy piano and driving rock drumming, and "Green" continues the up-tempo feel (along with a section of lyrical introspection). The duo achieves a full sound: Eckemoff's piano writing includes enough bass register to fill that function when necessary, and Katché can sound like a whole percussion section ("Violet" is a good example of this).
The long track "Blue" (which is about the calmness of blue lake and sky, not the sadness the color might suggest) is a good example of the sectional, through-composed compositions often essayed by her group projects. Here it is just the two players presenting a series of mostly contemplative moods, with a couple of recurring contrasting sprightly sections. "Grey" is a rubato rumination on old age, solo piano for the first third before light percussion joins in. Closer "Black" evokes only the darkness of night and sleep, a gentle meditation that comes full circle to the new day in the accompanying poem.
Colors is an exceptional addition to Yelena Eckemoff's discography, and a very clear picture of her compositional and pianistic talents, with everything extraneous stripped away. Manu Katché's contribution bears the hallmarks of his style: tonal color, invention, and his inimitable groove. It is not surprising that Eckemoff has opted to play live shows supporting the release solo, rather than use another drummer.