Yelena Eckemoff: Advocate of Love
Yelena Eckemoff was born and raised in Moscow, Russia. Her parents noticed that she had great musical potential when she started to play piano by ear when she was just four years old. Eckemoff’s mother, was a professional pianist, and naturally became her first piano teacher. Three years later, the young Yelena was accepted into an elite Gnessins School for musically gifted children where, in addition to common school subjects, she received extensive training in piano, music theory, music literature, solfeggio, harmony, analysis of musical forms, conducting, composing, and other musical subjects. She was fortunate to study piano with Anna Pavlovna Kantor, who also trained one of today’s most celebrated pianists, Evgeny Kissin. Eckemoff later studied with studied with Galina Nikolaevna Egiazarova at the Piano School of the Moscow State Conservatory. Upon obtaining her Master’s Degree in piano performance and pedagogy, she worked as a piano teacher in one of Moscow Music Schools, gave solo concerts, attended courses at the Moscow Jazz Studio, played in an experimental jazz-rock band, and continued to compose music for different instruments and voice.
After marrying and starting a family, Eckemoff temporarily retired from her pursuit as a concert pianist. Even though she never terminated her performing activities, she chose not be involved with professional music circles.
Since 1991, Eckemoff and her family have been living permanently in the USA, where she now continues to play concerts and compose music. Taking advantage of technological advancements, Eckemoff also began developing her career as an independent recording artist. Over the course of years, she has produced a number of recordings of her original, arranged, and classical music under her own independent label, L & H Production.
In addition to being a bandleader and performer, she is the founder of Yelena Eckemoff’s Piano School as well as Singers of Hope Chorus. Eckemoff also gives private piano lessons and serves as a church musician and choir director.
Eckemoff’s new album, Advocate of Love, shows this remarkable pianist’s influences, namely the modern classical movement, contemporary and be-bop jazz as well as others. It is remarkably mature and often programmatic in nature. It is not conducive for casual listening or as background music, as Eckemoff’s compositions demand attentive listening—and are quite worthy of it.
Rising from Within, the album opener, is similar to some of George Gershwin’s compositions, with Eckemoff incorporating the famed composer’s keen ability to seamlessly blend jazz and classical music. Featuring guest cellist Gayle Masarie, there are even bit and snippets of Argentine tango along with some of bluesy harmonies found in Porgy and Bess, as well as elements of 20th century impressionist composers like Debussy. Eckemoff’s piano, joined by Pat Lawrence on double bass and Michael Bolejack on percussion produces a larger than trio sound, programmatic and colorful.
The aromatically entitled Fresh Air & Coffee begins with Lawrence and Boeljack jousting around with the tempo and flavor of the tune. Eckemoff’s sweeping piano arpeggios then enter the mix, which more than hint at her many years of classical training, producing a broad swath of cascading tones. Even though you’re listening to a jazz piano trio per se, given Eckemoff’s unique approach to composition, it sounds as if you’re hearing an orchestral piece. This is sophisticated music, spanning the two broad genres of classical and jazz, with many additional spheres of influences as well. Lalo Shiffrin comes to mind, as does Keith Jarrett, and in some ways, Oregon as well. The piece alternates between passages of light and dark, punctuated by Eckemoff’s percolating piano playing.
Propelled by Bolejack’s drumming, with his sixteenth note high-hat rhythmic pattern, “Love Train” begins as a quick-tempo piece with Eckemoff’s piano providing the harmonic navigation. One of the interesting things about this piece—and Eckemoff’s original programmatic compositions in general—is that, unlike many jazz tunes, she doesn’t rely on the same structure for each tune (i.e., g., head, chorus, solo sections, repeat the head, then finish). Like many classical pieces, her songs involve several different sections, some of which repeat, whereas others are bridges to new thematic developments in and of themselves. Quite refreshing; but again, it may require more attentive and probably repeated listening to understand and grasp how her songs unfold.
Clocking in at less than three minutes, “Enchanted” is the shortest piece on the album. Like many of her other compositions, Eckemoff’s solo piano alternates between introspective, almost melancholy passages and more light-hearted motifs. Da, there is something particularly Russian about her music, filled with grandeur yet also a sense of longing.
Eckemoff’s Advocate of Love is a distinctive, authentically sophisticated album. Think of it as a classical work performed by a jazz piano trio, or a jazz album performed by a 20th century classical chamber trio. Somewhat akin to the Jacque Loussier Trio’s jazz approach to Baroque music but instead, taking its cue from classical music created several hundred years into the future. Each of Eckemoff’s compositions take the listener on a different sonic sojourn, with circuitous pathways teeming with aural discoveries. You could dance to it, but you’d best have some training in ballet, modern and jazz dance. Eckemoff’s compositional skills would also prove fortuitous for creating film scores and other thematic works. Not for the light-hearted, but very well done.