Yelena ECKEMOFF Quintet: In the Shadow of a Cloud – L & H 25, 96:00, (8/4/17) ***:

ECM-sound alike composer and pianist Yelena Eckemoff’s  tone poems arranged for a quintet.

(Yelena Eckemoff; composer and piano; Chris Potter; saxophone, bass clarinet, flute; Adam Rogers; guitar; Drew Gress; bass; Gerald Cleaver; drums)

The profound but irascible German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer astonished himself and the world (the latter belatedly) by independently discovering the central tenets of both Buddhism and Hinduism. When the first texts from the East, such as the Upanishads, began to make their way into European translations, Schopenhauer was able to show how many of the philosophical themes had been anticipated in his own multifarious writings. As it happened, this made little impression on his contemporaries.

A happier coincidence can be seen in the work of Yelena Eckemoff a transplanted Russian  composer and pianist who, it seems,  has independently discovered jazz. Arriving in the United States in 1991 as something of a refuge, following an education at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory as a classical musician, she had almost no acquaintance with the America-rooted improvisatory tradition. However, this did not stop her from releasing her first jazz record, Cold Sun, which comprised in her own words, “music I composed when I knew very little—if anything at all—about the modern jazz field.” The key word here is composed. She through-composes a good part of her music, which nevertheless absorbs and expresses the fundamental quality of jazz, its harmonic and melodic idiom as well as its feeling of spontaneity.

One might wonder if you are to rediscover jazz even as a composer, whether it entails working your way up through the evolution of its various historical epochs. We know that savvy young pianists like Emmet Cohen see jazz in just this pan-optical way, referencing all styles, sometimes in a single piece or solo. This was not Ms Eckemoff’s way at all; rather, she rediscovered in that first recording and all subsequent productions the vast  yet remarkably homogenous world of a single style, that of the European label ECM. In fact, she sounds not like one artist on the label but like all of them. There is some Bobo Stenson, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Steve Kuhn, no one of them plagiarized, rather elements of each assimilated into a distinctive language of her own.

Now here is an odd situation: This artist appears a distillation of the ECM spirit and yet there has been no rapprochement; meanwhile most of her first collaborators are the best of that labels business: Peter Erskine, Arild Andersen, Mark Feldman, Drew Gress, Billy Hart, Olavi Louhivuori. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the call comes from Mr. Eicher, or then again maybe Ms. Eckemoff prefers her artistic autonomy over the imprimatur of Europe’s most famous jazz label.

I was lucky to make my introduction to this artist by way of the beautiful 2012 record, Glass Song. (****½) On the ten tunes it is nearly impossible to find the seam between composition and improvisation. Arild Andersen has never sounded better as he engages his mighty bass in a perpetual dialogue with the introspective piano. Erskine, meanwhile, never plays two measures the same as he quietly animates the rhythmic undercurrent.  Self-produced, it measures up well to the standards of the ‘90s vintage ECM trio recordings and is imbued with the ‘next-best-thing-to-silence’ atmospherics.

Five years on from that memorable outing, Eckemoff’s discography is substantial. She has stayed true to the original notion of recording exclusively her own compositions, which now constitute a large and varied program of works bearing a family identity. They might be described as modest, candid musical creations which use diatonic materials to build up a recognizable world of mood and especially evocation of nature. Improvisations, even by the edgy violinist Mark Feldman, take their “instructions” from the chart; little in the way of avant / experimentation finds much of a purchase on her works.

Thus it is all the more surprising to see Ms Eckemoff venture into new territory with a quintet featuring electric guitar (Adam Rogers) and the tenor saxophone of Chris Potter on her 2017 release In the Shadow of a Cloud. We are sad to see the violin replaced by the electric guitar and skeptical at how well the over-sized musical personality of Potter will complement the delicate sketches of the composer.

As it happens both musicians bend themselves to the task with skill and commitment. From the first theme of the title track, Potter and Rogers surely reading the score stay focused on the intimate meanings of these sound paintings. A prominent feature of the trios is in evidence here, dialog framed by spacious attention to the uncluttered but interactive rhythm section. However, in spite of the earnestness and care Shadow of a Cloud has an tentative quality. The following Saratovsky Bridge attempts to assert more, but the tune never quite materializes and Potter sounds under-employed. In fact, it is disappointingly dull with an unsympathetic blend of instruments adding to the puzzlement.

The uncharacteristic sense of abstraction on these first two songs was disconcerting and it returns throughout on this two-disc production. It is hard to discern whether it is the kind of detachment that is a product the gap between technical overkill and thwarted communication, or rather that of five musicians in a glass studio who simply never quite manage collectively to breathe idea into life.

Fishing Village solves all of the problems, though, and the quintet finally gels as a unit on a lyrical piece which showcases the composer’s agile polyphonic writing. Adam Rogers sounds remarkably like John Abercrombie, which is a high compliment in my book. In fact, with the leader favoring discrete utterances and short phrases, the long legato lines of Rogers make for a feeling of ease and down-hill gliding. Potter switches to the flute on Waters of Tsna Village and is a marvel, the same technical prowess as his soprano but with a sweeter tone. After the gentle but non-memorable theme of Acorn Figurines played as duet between piano and guitar. We get a boisterous Motorboat with the usual notey Potter whose solo is followed by the polite articulations of piano and guitar and then a bit of chordless  free jamming before Potter is indulged in his pyrotechnics and upper register lacerations. Hammock Stories is lovely though, the standout piece on the session.

The CD booklet features lovely water colors of a Russian landscape of her childhood, along with poetic reminiscences, old photographs of family including Yelena as a young girl. The intention of the recording is to connect with this vanished world, simultaneously rooting the music in lived experience. The titles refer to  places and experiences from this world, trails, rivers, boats, acorns, a hunt and quite a bit of water. Although they might be all interchangeable, they add up in the end to a portrait of sorts. The breadth of feeling and range of ideas is not especially wide, but it is coherent and well-crafted.

The second disc drifts along without much momentum. Each piece gives the quintet a new chance to find some sort of rapport or special understanding of the thematic material. Discoveries are modest, however. Adam Rogers sounds consistently fluent, if a bit constrained. The leader’s own solos are so fastidious and understated, every thought is finished, sentences carefully punctuated. Potter’s huge tone on the soprano and spell inducing vibrato cannot save the dull theme of Waltz of the Yellow Pearls. The rhythm section of Drew Gress and Gerald Cleaver propel Trail along the River with superb drive while the tenor sits out.

Lament begins with a meager head that gives way to what sounds like a scored out solo by the pianist. Rogers saves the day day again with a short but lovely chorus. Potter’s nasal soprano meanders without purpose until it finds notes that he seems to have invented in the upper range of the instrument, notes which encapsulate the impersonality and aridity of so much post-bebop mainstream  jazz.

Visions of the Hunt introduces the bass clarinet and again we must concede that even if Potter gave up all saxophones he would rank as a top tier technician, for he is a virtuosos on all reeds and flutes. There is some animation to this piece which has the least constraining form of the session. The penultimate Fog, however, is a long slog, the noodling soprano the persistent affliction. I invite auditors to listen in around 4:45 mark when the Yelena solos. The fog lifts immediately. When the soprano returns so does the fog bringing with it his friend, the miasma.

The final Tambov Streets on a Summer Night never comes into focus. Everyone is reading from scores in different rooms and also in different worlds of musical thought and intuition. The drummer is manifestly bored as the piano and sax fail to connect the way that Ms. Eckemoff did with such emotional potency in her recordings with Arild Andersen.

Overall, this is recording catches a major artist on a musical project that did not quite pan out, in marked contrast to her earlier releases. Neither the compositions nor the personnel made for an auspicious circumstances. If this recording fails, it is only by the high standards of this artist  who at the very least tried for something new with the quintet, demonstrating as always her very considerable musical ambition.

CD 1 
In the Shadow of a Cloud
Saratovsky Bridge
Fishing Village
Waters of Tsna River
Acorn Figurines
On the MotorboatHammock Stories

CD 2
Picnic in the Oaks
Waltz of the Yellow Petals
Trail Along the River
Vision of a Hunt
The Fog
Tambov Streets on a Summer Night

—Fritz Balwit