Q&A with Yelena Eckemoff: Crafting Intimate Music


Pianist Yelena Eckemoff said her “task as a composer is to provide comprehensive music material to musicians who can both read and improvise.”

(Photo: Vanka Srdic)

Yelena Eckemoff is a Russia-born pianist whose idiosyncratic jazz albums speak to a classical sensibility, a taste for ideas that verge on the cosmic and a remarkable empathy with the musicians with whom she records.

In May, Eckemoff is set to release Desert, a fantasia of endless sands and of the people who live there. It’s a stirring successor to last year’s exceptional double album In The Shadow Of A Cloud and a notable addition to Eckemoff’s rapidly growing canon.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re a musician, painter and writer. How do the disciplines connect for you?

Drawing and painting have been hobbies since early childhood. The need to write poetry and prose to accompany my music came when I felt that each musical project was connected to some kind of vision, a conceptual entity that fully captivated my imagination, until I completed my project and moved on.

An example of that inter-connection is my latest release, Desert. An idea for the project had been simmering in me for several years. I had this fascination and wonder about the vast territories covered with sand, with harsh environment, unfriendly to life, yet life still exists and perseveres. I had already composed some pieces with the desert subject in the past, but I had not finalized the grouping of musical material around the desert subject until I decided on the band to perform it with: Paul McCandless, Arild Andersen and Peter Erskine.

Composing and arranging music for Desert was intertwined with my intense studies of the subject. Based on my studies and the selected musical material, I felt strongly compelled to include a character in my story who suffered a catastrophic loss in his life, then came to the desert to die and found new life instead. So, even after the music was recorded and mixed, it wasn’t until I wrote my prose and poetry and painted a picture that I felt the project was complete.

Is jazz your primary outlet? If so, why? What’s its draw?

Composing has always been the core of my music-making, and personally, I believe that strong composition is essential for the success of any musical effort. Of course, any capable composer can finalize the composition to a single note. I’ve done a lot of note-by-note composing for different instruments, and I still write out a lot of scores and parts. But it is boring for me to perform fully written music in a chamber group, even with the best sight readers and accomplished chamber players.

My task as a composer is to provide comprehensive music material to musicians who can both read and improvise, and get them interested in performing my music the way that they feel. As a modern composer, I’d like to see the performers as my teammates who are not only capable of bringing my visions to life, but can also contribute to the music with their creative approach, improvisations and musical personalities. To me, this is where jazz truly excels and becomes, like Billy Hart used to say, an American classical music.

What draws you to a musician?

I work with musicians whom I share a musical affinity. It is most important for me to feel that there is a connection between us—musical, spiritual, aesthetical, cultural. In the spring of 2019, I will release my first duo record Colors, with French drummer Manu Katche. I suspect news of this record might raise some brows because our connection seems unlikely: Manu’s own music is quite different from mine. Yet we had an absolutely great time recording Colors and shared some deep musical connection and mutual understanding.

What draws you to a musical theme?

I have a huge pile of sketches, themes and finished pieces, which keeps growing. As I choose my next project, I go through the pile, selecting sketches of musical compositions or themes that could work for this project. As my conceptual ideas demand, I adjust, arrange, modify the themes and compose new material, if needed. There are themes that wait in the pile for years, having been rejected many times, until suddenly I reach for them excitedly and make them work perfectly for my project. At the same time, quite often, I would include in the project the themes freshly composed, so they never end up in the “waiting pile.”

Do you have a favorite format?

Starting in 2010, I released five records in trio format one after another—actually six, since one is not yet released. Still, I don’t favor any format, since each of my projects is different and thus might require different instruments and a particular format. I focused on the trio format in the beginning, because I wanted to keep it simple and gain more experience. Then I felt it was time to start adding more players to my band, and I liked the sound of my quartets and quintets and the new possibilities of interplay they offered. This fall I am releasing my first sextet, Better than Gold and Silver, with Ralph Alessi, Ben Monder, Christian Howes, Drew Gress and Joey Baron. But with the sextet, I think I’ve reached the largest number of instruments I would like to work with. I value the intimacy of the small ensemble very highly and feel that adding even more instruments could take that intimacy away. DB

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