A jazz review: Yelena Eckemoff becomes one with ‘Lions’

The Yelena Eckemoff Trio’s new Lions double-album comes with a thick CD booklet loaded with pictures of the musicians in action and poetry elaborating on the 14 original songs. On the album cover is a very realistic likeness of three lions in the safari. Eckemoff created all of the art and the music for her March 3, 2015 U.S. release with extreme care.

For most jazz musicians, album art — literary or visual — is the last thing on their minds. They’re only about the music, to the point where they don’t even care what the song titles are, just throw some words together and call it good. A classically trained pianist and composer originally from Moscow, Russia residing in North Carolina, Eckemoff doesn’t make music that way. She prefers to put thought into every detail from concept to execution, even providing her trio — Norwegian double-bassist Arild Andersen, and American drummer Billy Hart — with lead sheets and audio demos before the two-day recording session.

“For some musicians, music is just music. The names of the songs are expendable and what the music expresses is irrelevant — as long as it sounds good,” Eckemoff said in a February 9th press release written by John Kelman. “For me, the music has always been nothing less than captivating storytelling and a way to express my feelings and thoughts, as well as the world around me.”

Eckemoff got so into the narrative of her own music that she soon found herself virtually becoming one of the lions in the album, her eighth jazz venture on record in nine years. “As my imagination grew wilder, I started to fantasize about escaping the human world and turning into a lioness myself. My fantasies were so vivid at times that even now I have my doubts that the story of getting transported to the African savanna on the wings of migrating birds, finding myself in a lioness’ body, and then living in a lion’s pride was just a figment of my imagination,” Eckemoff continued in the press release. “Or was it for real? I hope whoever listens to the music and reads the story might find out for him or herself.”

This is a record that cannot be rushed, or brushed aside to zero in on the good parts. Like the poetic narrative Eckemoff wrote for each chronological story in the song, it’s best to listen over and over from beginning to end without missing one beat, note, or metronome effect (“Young At Play”). Eckemoff is such a cerebral yet heartfelt artist, that it’s impossible to soak in the full immersion of the experience of living in another plane, much less as another kind of animal — without taking the same care and time listening as she did in composing.

The opening track about “Lions” both traces the noble animals’ movements on a strange and barren land, while somehow seizing on what it must feel like to be “full of commanding grace,” with “primordial power [from Eckemoff’s poem].” Eckemoff’s strength as a classical-jazz artist is her ability to embody the very subject she describes through her humanizing music, whether it is rain pattering on a window (2013 Glass Song) or here, watching lions approach in their kingdom.

Each musician in her trio takes a part in the role of the lions, as well as the pride and the fearlessness of those lions: Eckemoff’s piano portrays the sure-footed movement, the graceful confidence, and the beauty especially of the lioness; Andersen’s job is much harder, shifting the movement with an undercurrent of drama and the anticipation of a metamorphosis — Eckemoff’s; and Hart plays the accents, highlighting the action and the mood. “Lions” is the longest song on the record, at nine minutes, 28 seconds, because the trio must set the mood, introduce the main characters, and stir the pot.

As fully prepared as Eckemoff was prior to the recording, it’s not hard to picture the musician losing herself in the notes and the feelings they provide. She must’ve felt incredibly maternal during “Young At Play,” as the music captured “little cubs scampering between [her] paws” — caught in the tumbling art of her reflective piano. But on an existential level, the short, four-minute-plus song does more than add a score to this brief, cute interlude. Towards the end, Eckemoff pulls up a very complex human emotion of hope in her baby cubs’ future as Andersen’s bass and Hart’s sticks slowly build toward that unknown — “You grow fast; will you not tear me to pieces when you learn that I used to be a human?” At the 3:40 mark, Eckemoff beautifully compounds a gradual, darkening shift upon the cubs’ tumbling act with the addition of somber, contrasting tones piling on one another, echoed in kind by Andersen’s bottomless rumbling.

If it weren’t for Eckemoff’s painstaking nature to take care of the mood shifts and emotions at play — these are lions with one absorbing a human soul! — much of the album would revert to soundtrack status, as in more sound effects and score (atmospheric music) than jazz jam sessions. “Migrating Birds,” the second longest song, is completely inventive in the use of the musicians orchestrating their instruments to replicate form from the formless — Billy Hart’s fluttering drums mimic the birds’ wings as they rattle against the wind in flight — and the overwhelming emotion of peace permeating throughout, almost too well. Very little happens to jolt or change the course of these “Migrating Birds” (instrumentation) on their placid journey.

With the first well-chosen, tone-heavy notes by Eckemoff on her piano, the mostly light and lively nature of Lions is thrown into the fiery depths of an ever-changing “Night In Savanna.” Or, as Eckemoff writes in her accompanying poem, “The sky is flaming with red, yellow, violet, and purple; Black silhouettes of vultures puncture an orange glow of dusk… And creepy shadows settle on me like a burden of conscience.” Somehow, the trio is able to manifest all of this in musical form, whether it’s the rising brush strokes of a hushed sunset in Hart’s percussive hands, or the more subtle interlocking sense of elongated time in Andersen’s sporadic, fading bass strings. Underneath the “bloody coat of human world,” Eckemoff controls the volume, speed, and deepens the gaze simply by where her fingers land and linger.

A cool little blues tune comes out of nowhere in the second half of this production with “Lions Blues.” Eckemoff shows off her flair with the extra flash, rattling and rolling as the exclamation points of each pulsating line. She even exhibits an inherent feel for that bluesy push-pull but within the context of the scenery in the “tropical rains.”

For Eckemoff, “one of the most heartfelt tunes” erupts in “Instinct,” about the “shameless mating ground for innocent lions.” In her poem, she calls it “the feral urge,” where “all insecurities of my former self are gone.” For such an openly sensual piece, she keeps the vibe free and easy, and gentle.

By the time “Joining The Pride” gives Billy Hart ample opportunity to start busting out his jazz-funk beats, the trio opens up the arch and triumph of a classically inclined, subdued roaming roster into more of a feral snap. The final piece, “Ode To Strength,” gives the musicians a little more wiggle room, and one can hear Hart jump-starting his kit to the ignition keyed in by Eckemoff. Alas, a jump is all he gets here. Melody is lost in the hunt for harmonic cables amidst “refreshing” avant-garde “gusts.”

Yelena Eckemoff Trio’s Lions is a long but comprehensive look at animals in the wild with human touches, a classical-jazz soundtrack that goes beyond the superficial, intermission grabs for attention and seeks out the feelings beneath the eerily accurate movements. For the most part, Eckemoff more than survives the wild; she civilizes it.