Yelena Eckemoff was born in Moscow and studied at the prestigious Gnessin Academy and the Moscow State Conservatory. She has lived in the United States since 1991, and was a classical pianist until about 2009, when she reinvented herself as a jazz musician. Her new album, Glass Song, has a theme. It is about the particular moment when the ice of winter begins to melt, promising the eventual arrival of spring. Her compositions have titles like “Dripping Icicles” and “March Rain.”
Eckemoff’s classical background is audible in the intricacy and proportion and refinement of each song’s design, and in the measured caution of her improvisations. But she is more romantic impressionist than academic. Her forms, for all their order and precision, are heartfelt. Her sonic metaphors are often apt, like the pretty cycling phrases of high treble melody that stand for “Melting Ice,” and the splashes of light that represent “Cloud Break.”
The risk with such music is sentimentality and preciousness. Eckemoff protects herself against these pitfalls by employing a world-class, powerfully assertive yet sensitive rhythm section. Bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Peter Erskine had never played together before. It’s difficult to think of a piano trio album, led by the pianist, that is so defined by its bassist and drummer. Andersen’s role is so prominent, and he is positioned so far forward in the mix, that Glass Song is like a piano/bass duo project with drum accompaniment. His rich bass sound, down to its bottom octave, is beautifully recorded; his lyrical, commanding lines flow all through Eckemoff’s fragile melodies; and his looming presence imparts drama. Everything Erskine plays is interesting, whether he is soloing melodically, like on “Dripping Icicles,” or shading and highlighting details within these songs, adding subtle edges.