Pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff defines radiance as “a state of happiness or confidence when everything around you is shining.” On her latest album, A Touch of Radiance, she explores that idea from 10 different perspectives, drawing rich inspiration from memories, emotions, and dreams, and the inner world where all three intersect.
In addition to the 10 musical expressions of radiance, Eckemoff also examines the concept in other media; she painted the vivid sunset on the album cover and wrote 10 short poems to expand on each piece, all of which are included in the album’s liner notes. A Touch of Radiance also expands her horizons instrumentally, marking the first time that the classically-trained pianist has recorded with more than a trio. She’s assembled a stunning – yes, even radiant – band for the occasion, featuring saxophonist Mark Turner, vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Billy Hart.
“I was ready to move on,” Eckemoff says. “My goals didn’t change: I wanted to express in music what I feel and what I experience. But utilizing more instruments gives your music a wider angle.”
These four gifted artists respond gorgeously to Eckemoff’s music, wringing bold colors and deep feeling from pieces that are both airy and intricate. “The musicians helped me to paint my musical picture,” Eckemoff says. “What made the project a success is that in addition to improvising brilliantly, all the musicians were extremely respectful to my written structures, tunes and melodic lines. The combination of written and improvised music as well as totally loose group improvisations has been my chosen musical language. With each new recording I am more comfortable with this language.”
Hart responded enthusiastically to Eckemoff’s extra-musical inspirations, the pianist says. He transformed his approach to evoke the sound of walking on cobblestones, the fluttering of butterfly wings, or the crackling of a wood stove. In fact, Eckemoff recalls, “On the song ‘Affection’ Billy asked me if I wanted him to be a little puppy or a big dog.”
Eckemoff’s blend of jazz freedom and classical structure pushed even such a skilled and experienced group of musicians to stretch their limits. “She has her own thing – it is not a copy of another person’s music like you run into almost all the time,” says Mraz. “It was a challenge to flesh out these compositions of Yelena’s,” Locke feels, “and I thank her for that challenge.”
Aside from the opening track, “Inspiration,” which sets the album’s tone through its air of dream-like mystery, the pieces on A Touch of Radiance and their accompanying poems move chronologically through Eckemoff’s life. The playful opening melody of “Reminiscence,” articulated by Eckemoff and Locke, introduces a piece that harkens back to the composer’s childhood in the Soviet Union, offering a glimpse of an imaginative child surrounded by a loving family. When her father enters at the poem’s end saying, “I met a rabbit on my way home / And look what a tasty treat he gave me for my little girl!” it’s as if the children’s book and the world outside have merged, a memory that feels like a fantasy, or a fantasy that feels like a memory.
“I was an only child and I spent a lot of time alone with picture books,” Eckemoff says. “There’s a certain mood to this song that somehow connects me to a time when I was five years old, and was in my world of literature and images.”
The aptly-titled “Exuberance,” which portrays a six-year-old Eckemoff eagerly if clumsily helping her mother and grandmother cook a family feast, and the tender “Affection,” about a beloved puppy, continue these warm memories of youth in a cold country. She skips forward to her own life as a parent with the frantic “Pep,” dizzy with the never-ending work of a wife, mother, artist, and teacher. The shadowy mood of “Reconciliation” provides a bittersweet image of domestic life, with arguments and hurt feelings overcome by a loving reunion, and “Encouragement” celebrates the support to be found in family.
Eckemoff’s music has often drawn inspiration from the natural world, and she returns to that theme on “Imagination,” a portrait of a snowy winter scene dreamed up on what turns out to be a sweltering summer day. “Tranquility” captures the pianist’s ability to tune out the harsh noise of the city to focus on the sounds of nature, while the title track watches a moth drawn to light in the same way that Eckemoff found herself pulled in by the broader notion of radiance. And despite the nostalgic stories and memories behind the songs on A Touch of Radiance, the music doesn’t indulge in manipulative or overwrought emotion. “I’m a sentimental person but I don’t write sentimental music,” Eckemoff says, adding with a laugh, “I know better.
“I’m an old-fashioned romantic,” she continues. “Feelings and emotions and of course nature are always what interest me, and I still believe in melodies.”
Eckemoff began playing piano at the age of four, studying first with her mother Olga, a professional pianist, then at the prestigious Gnessin Academy of Music and the Moscow State Conservatory. Despite the repressive atmosphere in the Soviet Union at the time, she began to explore rock and jazz music with other like-minded musicians. “Everything from the west was prohibited at that time,” she recalls, “and jazz was one of those things. But there was a jazz studio formed by some activists who were also professional musicians and we studied traditional jazz. I used jazz principles in my composing, which put me on a different path from other musicians.”
Eckemoff stepped away from her life as a concert pianist for several years to concentrate on raising her children. She finally left the Soviet Union with her husband, momentarily leaving her three children behind. “That was the hardest thing I ever did,” she says, “but we had the drive to leave the Soviet Union. It was a very hard and scary thing to do, but it worked out and we never regretted it. It ended up helping me in my musical development because I had much deeper spiritual experiences because of it.”
After returning to the piano, she turned increasingly to jazz and has now recorded several acclaimed albums with such respected players as Peter Erskine, Marilyn Mazur, Arild Andersen, Darek Oleszkiewicz, Mads Vinding, and Mats Eilertsen. “Very rarely am I surprised like I am with Yelena,” enthuses Hart. “Somebody that comes out of nowhere with this much maturity and experience and musicality. You don’t expect somebody that you don’t know to challenge you in such an enjoyable way. In a very euphoric way it was a very satisfying project for me.”