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Yelena Eckemoff Quintet: A Touch of Radiance

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Proof that Russian pianist Yelena Eckemoff is an extraordinary composer is evident from the phenomenal musicians she was able to recruit for her first-ever collection of original music for quintet. The august rhythm tandem of drummer Billy Hart and bassist George Mraz is at once piquant and complementary. What Joe Locke spools out on vibes has the tensile strength and gossamer shimmer of a spider’s web. And Mark Turner is among the most lyrical tenor saxophonists to come to prominence in the last 20 years.

This sublime cast gilds the dovetailing geometry and clean aesthetics of Eckemoff’s compositions. Despite their interior intricacy, the 10 pieces flow with smooth economy, clearly favoring through-composition to jazz improvisation (ironically, Hart seems the most adventurous band member). And although the titles connote new-age ethereality, and each song is accompanied by prose in the liner notes relating to an aspect of Eckemoff’s biography, nothing in the music feels overly precious. On the contrary, her crisp, lilting phrases and imaginative counterpoint could use more discrepancy to help distinguish

“Reminiscence” from “Imagination” or “Tranquility.”

Nevertheless, the way Eckemoff has broadened her compositional palette for trio to utilize the vibes of Locke and the sax of Turner will delight her fans and perhaps foreshadows a further expansion into mini-symphonic works-at her best, there are gentle reminders of the Romantic lyricism of Rachmaninoff here. There are also triumphant moments of understatement, as in the way Hart and Mraz burnish “Exuberance.” While it’s hard not to wonder what this quintet could have done with a little more freedom, the allure of Eckemoff’s compositions and her ace recruitments skills yield enduring dividends.

Originally Published