Russian born pianist Yelena Eckemoff’s latest offering Forget-me Not is a jazz and classically infused exploration of beauty, textures and improvisational genius. The interactive chemistry between Yelena, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and drummer Marilyn Mazur is clear from the first lustrous passages. Eckemoff’s compositions offer a journey of introspection, exploration and emotional intelligence. One cannot help but be profoundly moved by hearing her approach and ideas. Though classically influenced in nature, each composition is entrenched in the modern jazz idiom. With a vast discography, that includes some of the leading figures in jazz today, Eckemoff has clearly established herself as a top ranking composer. The question is no longer whether she can be considered in the ranks of top composers; it is now how far her musical journey will take her.
I was fortunate enough to have a chance to interview this significant composer and delve into some of her processes and background, including her decision to move to the United States when Russia was the Soviet Union.
H. Allen Williams: What was the main reason you left Russian and came to the United States to reside?
Yelena Eckemoff: Summing up a long story to one sentence, I’d say that the main reason that my husband and I moved and left our home was the strong desire to seek the freedom to practice our Christian faith and to raise our children away from restrictive regime of the Soviet Union.
H. Allen Williams: How do you feel that your Russian upbringing has influenced your music?
Yelena Eckemoff: Living in Moscow, I was exposed to an enormously flourishing Russian culture, having had access to many cultural venues. But mostly, I owe everything to my mother Olga, a wonderful pianist, who brought me up in an extraordinary environment of music, art, fantasy, nature and much, much love and laughter. My mother diligently took me to endless concerts, operas, ballets, movies and plays; in my childhood she provided me with plenty of books, records and all kind of art supplies. I also was truly fortunate to receive an excellent academic education at the Special Gnessins School for musically gifted children, studying piano with Anna Pavlovna Kantor - one of the most brilliant piano teachers ever. The Gnessins School raised professional musicians from 5 - 6 years of age; therefore my future was pre-determined since first grade. I was also very fortunate to have another great teacher, Galina Nikolaevna Eguiazarova, who continued my development as a pianist at the Moscow Conservatory. Then I had an unmatched (for that time in Soviet Union) opportunity to learn and see a lot at the Moscow Experimental Jazz Studio, where I studied for two years.
H. Allen Williams: Historically, Russia seems to put a major focus on technique, how do you feel your piano lessons as a child influenced who you are as a player today.
Yelena Eckemoff: I inherited the traditions of the famous Russian Piano School which took its roots in the "poet of the pianoforte” Heinrich Neuhaus, who was a student of Aleksander Michałowski, who in turn was a student of Carl Mikuli, who in turn was a student of Frederick Chopin. Neuhaus was an artist of great culture, passionately in love with his art, who created his own highly intellectual and at the same time very romantic school of pianism. It was said that he forced the hands of his students to submit to artistic expression, to "obey the intellect."
H. Allen Williams: Who would you say was your biggest influence musically growing up?
Yelena Eckemoff: If I have to narrow down the long list of people who influenced me in my musical development, I shall name Galina Eguiazarova who had opened my ears to the very depths of music expression and shared with me her exquisite taste of classical music interpretation. I also should mention Dave Brubeck, whose live performance in Moscow opened new horizons for me when I was 20.
H. Allen Williams: What is the quantitative difference between Forget- me-Not and your other body of works?
Yelena Eckemoff: I see each new recording of mine as an evolution of some sort, the next step in my musical journey. Conceiving a new album and preparing music material for a new recording session, always involves rethinking, striving to do your best yet, and coming up with new ideas. Forget-me-Not is more dynamic and up-beat, even playful, than my previous recordings. In my own improvising I have explored a more dissonant and chromatic way of playing. I think Marilyn Mazur’s colorful and spirited percussion work and Mats Eilertsen’s lyrical bass playing enhanced by some very charming bowing, added some different angles and ECM flavor to this record.
H. Allen Williams: What is your composing process?
Yelena Eckemoff: Oh, it is very simple. All I need is music paper and a pencil. My head is always filled with melodies, rhythms, harmonies; even in my sleep I often hear music… I write it down whenever I have a chance and can get hold of something to write on. Later on, I go through my papers and rework material which speaks to me at the moment and develop it as much as I can (or my time permits.) Finally, as I prepare music for the live performance or the recording, I make the lead sheets in Sibelius music notation software.
H. Allen Williams: How do you balance composing and arranging with allowing flexibility and freedom for each individual player to create within the context of a piece?
Yelena Eckemoff: Usually a composer likes to be in total control of the music, but I’ve been learning to step back and let the performers participate in the creative process. Wherever possible I try to leave extra space (beyond the solos) in my compositions for making music on the spot during the recording. Working with top-notch musicians and such incredible improvisers humbles you and prompts you to minimize your control and let the interplay thrive. I have to confess that composing is still central to my music, which I believe makes it sound more like MY music and not just improvised avant-garde music. The improvised parts, solos, and interpretation may vary of course, but melody, musical structure and overall concept usually stay true to my vision and carefully thought- and felt through design. While traditional jazz keeps its focus on the body of improvisation, I treat improvising in modern jazz as an extension of the compositional process; it is a vital part of melodic and structural development – the same way it happens in classical music. This process started with George Gershwin, and Bella Bartok was known to intentionally leave some sections of his music blank with a note to the musicians to play what they felt appropriate. In writing my music I am trying to achieve a balance between what and how much is composed and what and how much is improvised. I believe I am one of a growing number of modern composers who chooses to incorporate an improvisational approach to the composing process.
H. Allen Williams: The trio really sounds interactive and cohesive. What are some of the conscience decisions the band as a whole made, and you as a leader made, to create such a unified ensemble sound?
Yelena Eckemoff: It surely helped that all three of us shared a common thread of liking the same type of material and were shared a similar vibe. It was exciting for all three of us to play together for the first time, and I was especially happy to introduce Eilertsen and Mazur to each other, and it was so much fun to watch them lock at once in a fire-sympathetic groove.
Also, since I have much of the piano parts written down, I suggested to Eilertsen some written bass lines to insure interesting polyphonic interaction in certain places when bass and piano should intervene very tightly. It was done in the songs “Five” (5/4 time signature), “Maybe,” “Schubert’s Code,” “Welcome a New Day,” and “Seven” (7/4 time signature). Still, most pieces on Forget-me-Not have less than one fourth of the written bass parts, and the rest have just the chords symbols marked. The only piece that has mostly written bass part is “Sand-Glass.”
H. Allen Williams: You seem to record with numerous ECM musicians, is this a purposeful approach, or do the individual musicians fit your musical message the best?
Yelena Eckemoff: I am always looking for like-minded musicians who I would share an affinity with. It just happens to be that I feel closer to ECM musicians, because we share a similar approach and affinity in music making. But I have also successfully collaborated with bassists Mads Vinding and Darek Olezskiewicz, who are not affiliated with ECM, and I am aware of a lot of other non-ECM musicians who I would gladly work with (and I hope I will) in the future.
H. Allen Williams: It’s obvious you’ve done a lot of honest thinking about your work and direction. How would you describe your music to an audience?
Yelena Eckemoff: It is said: treat others the way you yourself would like to be treated. I sincerely try to follow this rule in producing my music. I feel music should be listenable and accessible, but never vulgar or imitative of other music; it should be sophisticated and fresh; interesting, but not annoying; reflective; kind; soulful. Stylistically, my music is symbiotic, taking mainly from classical and jazz music universes. But, this is not a mere coexistence. The way I see it, there is a man, Jazz, and a woman, Classical. Since they have met each other, they had a love from the first sight, and having lived together as a couple for some time, they became proud parents of many children who bear features of both, but in different proportions. I think this is how the music is evolving now, and I am happy to be one of these lucky “children.”
H. Allen Williams: I noticed your discography is vast, but your performance schedule select. Do you prefer recording over live performances?
Yelena Eckemoff: If opportunity arises, I don’t mind to perform, and I’ve done numerous gigs both as concert pianist and with bands and ensembles; yet the career of a touring musician was never on my agenda. Basically, I am becoming way too busy with my composing and recording to be engaged in performing live. My main and passionate aspiration is to compose, and I do a lot of it, so I have virtually an endless supply of new music material; and then I am really thrilled to have it performed and recorded. Naturally, I love very much to play piano, but I am the most excited when I am playing my new music. The have the best time of my life during a recording session, period. But as soon as it is finished, all my desires turn towards planning and executing a new project. I realize that it is rather uncommon path for a musician, but this is the way I like it.
H. Allen Williams: Does recording and releasing records independently give you the freedom needed to explore your music honestly, or would you prefer to be label represented?
Yelena Eckemoff: Hypothetically, the representation of a good label could deliver my music to a larger audience. Yet I cherish the flexibility in choices I make, rather than be dependent on decisions of others, starting with the choice of music and performers, and ending with the art work design and release dates, and bunch of other things like that. I tend to believe that if music is good and deserves attention, it will somehow find its way to listeners sooner or later. It has been reassuring for me to see that my music steadily gains more radio play and more and more recognition and fans around the world as well as the attention and respect of some notable music critics. My CDs and digital download sales are also on the rise, and especially in Japan. So, the future looks quite promising for the L & H Production label.
H. Allen Williams: What does the future hold for Yelena Eckemoff?
Yelena Eckemoff: The one and only thing I truly desire for me in future, is to be able to continue to write and produce my music with the help of the great musicians and sound engineers, who would find this collaboration exciting and rewarding, at the best recording studios of the world. I’ve been lucky to do this so far, and I hope I will be able to continue as time goes by. In the beginning of 2013, I will be releasing my next CD, Glass Song, which I recorded in California last March with two legends in the jazz world who had also played together for the first time on my session - Arild Andersen on double-bass and Peter Erskine on drums. I am planning two new sessions – one for the trio with Arild and another in a quartet setting. I have my hands full with new ideas and projects, which makes me busy as a bee, but also truly happy.
Allen, you have asked me the most in-depth and insightful questions like no one else ever did. I truly appreciate your deep understanding and your intuition. I feel honored to be interviewed by you and would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart!
H. Allen Williams: Yelena, it is truly my pleasure – I found your music and story compelling. When your publicist presented the idea to me, I looked forward to finding out more about you from a now fan perspective and as a jazz critic, who knew others might feel the same way.
H. Allen Williams
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