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Pianist/Composer Yelena Eckemoff Presses Forward With Her Bold, Conceptual Vision Of Jazz On 'Lonely Man And His Fish,' Due April 28


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Every album I do is conceptual. Once I get an idea, I have the story worked out in my head. When I compose, I already know how the story is going to come out.
—Yelena Eckemoff
Pianist-composer Yelena Eckemoff's body of elaborate, ambitious jazz concept albums reaches a new virtuosic summit with Lonely Man and His Fish, to be released April 28 on her own L&H Production label. A double-CD set, the album is also a long-form parable, a story of deep affection between a human and his beloved pet. An all-star lineup—cornetist Kirk Knuffke, flutist Masaru Koga, bassist Ben Street, and drummer Eric Harland—helps Eckemoff breathe life into the tale.

Eckemoff, who is an artist and poet as well as a pianist and composer, typically creates imagery and text to augment her programmatic music. In the case of Lonely Man and His Fish, she outlines the concept as a prose narrative, broken down into short chapter-like sections that correspond to each track on the album, along with paintings that illustrate key moments.

Yet, as with all of her multidisciplinary projects, it’s the music that is front and center. “Every album I do is conceptual,” she explains. “At first I get an idea about a project, whether it’s stages of life, colors, smells, or animals. Once I get an idea, I don’t write out the story before the music. I have the story worked out in my head. When I compose, I already know how the story is going to come out.”

In a sense, the actual execution of the music brings in an aspect yet another creative discipline: theater. Knuffke and his cornet perform the role of Tim, the “lonely man” of the album title (who is a retired orchestral trumpet player). Koga wields a shakuhachi—a Japanese bamboo flute—to channel the character of Spark, Tim’s fish and companion. Each has impressive solo features, like Knuffke’s on “The Lonely Man” and Koga’s on “Life in the Pond.” But the two musicians also exchange and interact beautifully on tunes like the funky “A Man and His Fish” (on which Yelena plays celeste, the first time she’s recorded on anything but piano in a studio setting) and the warm, fond closer “Dreaming Together.”

Not to be dismissed, however, is the strength and empathy of the splendid rhythm section. Eckemoff, Street, and Harland bring remarkable alchemy to “First Evening at Home” and “Into the Wild” and a startling urgency to “Accident,” but also treat “Empty House” and “Survivor” with elegance and sensitivity.

Lonely Man and His Fish comes from Eckemoff’s narrative, but ultimately it’s the product of five ingenious storytellers.

Yelena Eckemoff was born and raised in Moscow—capital of what was then the Soviet Union—where she started playing by ear and composing music when she was four. She would go on to study classical piano the most prestigious music academies in Russia: the Gnessins School for musically gifted children, where she was a protégée of the great piano pedagogue Anna Pavlovna Kantor, and then the Moscow State Conservatory.

Gradually, however, Eckemoff’s ears wandered beyond her classical training; fissures in the Iron Curtain allowed her to discover first rock, then jazz. When she saw Dave Brubeck’s performance in Moscow in 1987, she settled on jazz as her permanent musical path.

That path turned out to run through the United States, where Eckemoff immigrated in 1991 and settled in North Carolina. Now ensconced in the country that gave birth to jazz, she went in search of players who could do justice to her intricate ideas.

The search was a long and sometimes frustrating one, but it paid off when she was able to work with the likes of bassist Mads Vinding and drummer Peter Erskine on her 2010 album Cold Sun. That project opened the door to Grass Catching the Wind and Flying Steps,collaborations withVinding and Erskine, respectively; those, in turn, opened the door to a full and prolific career. Subsequent collaborators have included Mark Turner, Joe Locke, Billy Hart, Chris Potter, Ralph Alessi, Drew Gress, and Nasheet Waits along with Knuffke, Koga, Street, and Harland. Her unique, sophisticated, and highly expressive music continues to draw support and creative energy from the finest musicians in the world.

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