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Yelena Eckemoff: Growing Into Jazz

Mark Sullivan By

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AAJ: It's often hard to hear the line between composition and improvisation in your music, and I was wondering to what extent there is a lot of composition. Are we talking about lead sheets that are a page long, or are these great big long scores with room for improvisation in different parts?

YE: Scores—yes, for myself, but for each musician it still comes to a lead sheet. I don't write much for bass, because I think bass has to have freedom to play on chord changes. So my bass parts are mostly open lead sheets, unless it's a melody (like in the beginning of "Abyss," for example,) or counter melody, or some kind of polyphonic interaction or groove I want to make sure of. The same goes with the other instruments. But of course some of my pieces are very compositional and have to be written out almost entirely. Those may have several tunes, development, transitions, and things like that, and the improvisations (both free and structured) have to happen at designated spots. But I also write tunes in traditional jazz forms, like intro-tune-choruses-tune repeat and ending. I have to have those simpler forms on the recording session along with the more complicated ones if I am serious about recording an entire album in 2-3 days (laughs).

AAJ: How long are your recording sessions normally? Do they take place over a couple of days?

YE: All of my sessions were two days, except the Finnish one, which was three days, but it's going to be a double album. It's amazing we're always able to record all that difficult music in two days. As a producer, I'm trying to think it all through, and in what order to record, and how to make sure that we get it all. It is very important for me to cover all the material, since my albums are conceptual and each song is an essential part of a story. It also helps to have great musicians in your boat (laughs).

AAJ: Is there anything different about the music you bring to the group when it's larger than a trio? Is there more written down when there's more players?

YE: No, not necessarily. But of course, bringing additional voices into the score makes it more challenging. I have to make a thought-through arrangement and a clear and easily read part for each musician. Every instrumental part has on average two-three, sometimes four-five pages. As long as it fits on the music stand (or two) I think it is not too much (laughs).

AAJ: You mentioned having a local band early on. Do you still have any kind of a working group locally?

YE: No, I don't work with local musicians. Actually, Billy Hart advised me that if I wanted to perform more, I should get a local band that would always be available. But I doubt I would be able to find readily available local musicians of the caliber and direction to match the ones I have been working with in the past seven years. Besides I hardly have any time to handle a local band—with all the efforts I am putting into with my music and my L & H Production label, plus I also teach piano.

AAJ: Have you managed to do any live performances with any of the folks you've recorded with?

YE: The following week after recording "Lions" with Arild Andersen and Billy Hart, we had an opportunity to bring my music to the Birdland Jazz Club, which was my debut performance in NYC. Next year I performed A Touch of Radiance at the Jazz Standard with George Mraz. Unfortunately George was the only one who was on the recording: Mark Turner, Joe Locke, and Billy Hart couldn't make it. I had asked Donny McCaslin to play saxophone and Eric McPherson, drums, and re-arranged the music from quintet to quartet. It was nice, but I was a little disappointed that I couldn't have the same band at the CD-release performance. This past April I had two performances of Lions in London with Arild Andersen and Martin France (a great UK drummer who substituted for Billy Hart.) Firstly we played at Ronnie Scott's, then on the second day at The Spice of Life, and it was really great to have this mini tour in support of the Lions CD release in the UK.

In general, I have to say that it's not easy for me to arrange performances, because I have never been a touring musician. Even though I have played many classical piano recitals and a number of gigs with my bands, I've never been on the road for too long. A big part of my life was consumed by immigration and integration into my new home country and raising three children. So, as many women before me, I had to put my career on hold for a while.

But I also see myself more as a composer, recording artist, producer, and a label owner than a touring musician. As soon as I finish one album, I am starting on another, and often work on several albums at the same time. I can't imagine where I would find time to compose all the music, record and produce an average 2 albums a year if I had to travel a lot. The other side of the coin is that I'm afraid if I had to tour a lot I wouldn't have enough time or energy to compose. At the same time, if an opportunity arises, I am always happy to show people my live performer's side. By the way, there are some videos of my live performances on YouTube. I still hope I will be able to put my live performing skills to good use in the future.

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