Yelena EckemoffLonely Man and His FishL & H Production

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If Yelena Eckemoff knows all about the revelatory power of narrative, it’s because her own story is so unlikely and inspiring. Since the release of her first concept album in 2010, the conservatory-trained Russian-born pianist has carved out a singular niche with an extraordinary, expansive body of programmatic compositions shaped by European classical music and jazz’s expressive interplay. Working from her home in rural North Carolina, the astonishingly prolific composer has connected with a diverse pool of master improvisers, supplying them with music requiring rarefied storytelling skills. A brilliant new cast of players bring her musical tale vividly to life on her 18th release, the double album Lonely Man and His Fish (L & H Production).

With Eckemoff on piano, Rhodes, and vintage Ampli-celeste, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, redoubtable bassist Ben Street, drummer extraordinaire Eric Harland, and Masaru Koga on shakuhachi and other flutes, Lonely Man and His Fish traces an elegantly simple story that unfolds with the evocative power of a parable. On the surface, it’s an oft-told tale. Man meets fish. Man loses fish. Fish and man are reunited. But in the musical realm of Eckemoff, who’s also a poet and graphic artist responsible for the album’s striking cover art, seemingly simple stories reveal both the numinous glow of everyday life and our spiritual ties to the natural world. Like her previous projects, Lonely Man and His Fish is a triumph of casting, with the titular roles interpreted by unmistakable instrumentalists.

The prolific Knuffke is a cornetist sought out by a wide array of creative musicians looking for an improviser equally fluent in inside and outside settings. As a leader and co-leader, he’s recorded several dozen albums that have earned him numerous awards and honors. He brings the soul and inner spirit of the Lonely Man to life with empathetic warmth and concentrated feeling, subtly portraying melancholy, affection, remorse, anxiety, and joy without a hint of sentimentality. His aqueous companion is beautifully rendered by Koga, a player who has been gaining recognition on the New York scene since relocating from the San Francisco Bay Area three years ago. A saxophonist and flutist who was born in Japan and grew up moving between Europe and the United States, Koga is best known for his work with veteran Bay Area drummer Akira Tana’s Otonowa, a group that has honed a gorgeous repertoire of jazz settings for traditional and popular Japanese melodies.

Eckemoff knew she wanted the Fish to be portrayed by the Japanese end-blown bamboo shakuhachi, and was drawn to Koga’s playing by his command of jazz idioms. “Other players were way more traditional,” she says. “He’s more of a jazz player. I was thinking about my story and I heard the Lonely Man represented by cornet, and the Fish by the flute, but I wanted Japanese flute. Masaru played shakuhachi and also a regular Western flute with an attachment that made it sound Japanese. I wanted that sound, not clarinet, not saxophone.”

Eckemoff’s liner notes detail the narrative that guides the music. A recently retired orchestra player salves his isolation by purchasing a fish that he dubs Spark. They delight in each other’s companionship until a bicycle accident puts the man in the hospital, setting in motion a chain of events that ends up with Spark, unbeknownst to the man, taking up residence in a nearby pond. The man’s trumpet playing facilitates a reunion, returning his lost Spark. It’s a sweet story that speaks to our isolation, our longing for connection, and maybe our search for faith while lost out in the stars.

What makes Eckemoff’s tale so effective is that her music carefully observes and comments on the events and feelings with a light, affectionate touch. From the opening track, “Lonely Man,” the story unfolds with sly observations that seem tailormade for Knuffke: “There is playfulness, a lightness in his playing. It was a perfect fit.”

Almost every piece could be played independently. The whimsical “Breakfast for Two” feels like it could be a theme for a remake of The Odd Couple (one of jazz’s great texturalists, Harland plays with translucent acuity throughout). But like most of her concept albums, she designed the project with a cohesive flow and sequence.

“At first I get an idea about a project, whether it’s stages of life, colors, smells, or animals,” Eckemoff says. “I’m looking for the frame, the concept. I did Cold Sun about early spring and late winter and Everblue about the ocean. It becomes my world for the duration of the project, like when you read a long novel. Once I get an idea, I don’t write out the story before the music. I have the story worked out in my head. When I compose, I already know how the story is going to come out.”

No one could have guessed how Eckemoff’s story would turn out given her early trajectory. Born in Moscow in 1962, she was a musical prodigy who began playing piano and composing at the age of four tutored by her mother, a noted piano teacher. By seven she was studying at the prestigious Gnessins Academy with Anna Pavlovna Kantor, whose other students included Evgeny Kissin. Eckemoff went on to the elite Moscow Conservatory as a young teen, but her musical curiosity eventually propelled her off the classical path. Enamored by Pink Floyd, she started dissecting prog rock, and became smitten with jazz when she attended Dave Brubeck’s famous 1987 Moscow concert. “And then I was studying jazz in the experimental Moscow Jazz studio,” she says. “So that’s how I was educating myself.”

Teaching and composing, she and her husband carved out a comfortable niche, but seeking more opportunities they decided to emigrate to the U.S. with their three children in 1991 as the Soviet Union started to disintegrate. A long, arduous process eventually found the family reunited in North Carolina, where she started to build a new life playing occasional concerts, teaching music, and working as a church musician. Frustrated by the uninspired level of local jazz talent, she eventually connected with veteran Danish bassist Mads Vinding via his MySpace page where he offered his services to fellow musicians. Thrilled with the results, she sent the overdubbed duo recording to drum legend Peter Erskine in Los Angeles. Duly impressed by her music, he added his contribution, which is how her breakout 2010 concept album Cold Sun was created.

She was off and running. Later that year she released Grass Catching the Wind working remotely with Vinding and Danish drummer Morten Lund, and the live session Flying Steps, featuring Erskine and first-call LA-based Polish bassist Darek Oles. She’s produced at least one album a year since then, working with the finest improvisers in Europe and the U.S., leading to critically hailed albums such as 2014’s A Touch of Radiance with Mark Turner, Joe Locke, George Mraz, and Billy Hart, and 2017’s In the Shadow of a Cloud with Chris Potter, Adam Rogers, Drew Gress, and Gerald Cleaver.

“It is how an avalanche starts,” Eckemoff says about her ever-expanding creative community. “You make a snowball and throw it down. It rolls down gathering more and more snow, and before you know there is a mass of snow, ice, and rocks falling rapidly down a mountainside.”

The rock supporting all of Eckemoff’s expression is her faith, which she brought to the fore on 2016’s Better Than Gold and Silver, a double album featuring her vocal and instrumental settings for 10 Psalms. She returned to the Bible in 2022 with I Am a Stranger in This World featuring Ralph Alessi, Drew Gress, Adam Rogers, and Nasheet Waits in a program of gospel-inflected instrumental settings for another selection of Psalms.

Whether a project is driven by a narrative or not, “every album I do is conceptual,” Eckemoff says. “I’ve been composing music since I was four. I don’t even try. Tunes come to me. Sometimes it’s too much. God created me like that. That’s why I don’t perform that much, and don’t want to perform anymore. I have so much to compose. And in the genre I compose, the project is only finished when recorded with jazz musicians. I design the project for them to be able to express themselves.”

With Lonely Man and His Fish, Eckemoff has expanded an already capacious creative universe. Knuffke, Koga, Street, and Harland are amongst jazz’s most prolific recording artists, but interpreting her music reveals previously unheard wrinkles in their instrumental personalities. Joining in the telling of her story, they’ve added a new chapter to their own, which is the sure sign of a great jazz composer. •

Yelena Eckemoff: Lonely Man and His Fish

(L & H Production)

Street Date: April 28, 2023