Norwegian Night Moves: Yelena Eckemoff’s “Nocturnal Animals” (L & H Production, 2020)

Album review by Neil Hobkirk

Reviewing Yelena Eckemoff’s exquisite Everblue (2015) for Wall of Sound a few years ago, I considered it a compelling answer to the question “When is an ECM album not an ECM album?” To find out just how that record earned such paradoxical status, read my review. But in the meantime, let’s look at how her brilliant brand-new LP Nocturnal Animals addresses not only that question but another, equivalent one: “When is a piano trio not a trio?”

Self-produced for Eckemoff’s own label L & H Production, Nocturnal Animals too could pass easily for an ECM release. Joining the pianist-composer are bassist Arild Andersen and drummer/percussionist Jon Christensen, Norwegians who’ve played together regularly since 1967 and who’ve been mainstays of the German label since its beginnings fifty years ago. The session’s main recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug is the man who minted ECM’s trademark ambient studio sound, beginning with Afric Pepperbird, an LP recorded in 1970 by the Jan Garbarek Quartet, which included Andersen and Christensen. And like Everblue, Nocturnal Animals was captured in Kongshaug’s Oslo audio stronghold, Rainbow Studio, site of countless ECM sessions. Nocturnal Animals may well have been the man’s final project: battling ill health, he was assisted in the control room by second engineer Peer Espen Ursfjord, and Kongshaug passed away a year and a half later in 2019, ECM Records’ fiftieth anniversary.

Yelena Eckemoff with recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at Rainbow Studio, Oslo

On Everblue, Eckemoff rounded out her quartet with Norwegian sax man Tore Brunborg. For Nocturnal Animals the pianist retains Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen but replaces the saxophonist with second drummer/percussionist Thomas Strønen, another—much younger—Norwegian familiar from ECM recordings (three under his own name, and three co-led with saxist Iain Ballamy under the group name Food). In effect this marks Eckemoff’s return to the piano trio format with which she began her jazz-oriented recording career, only now the drum role is doubled. Eckemoff first fully embraced the jazz idiom on her trio record Cold Sun (2010), having previously released albums exploring different genres. A further four piano trio discs followed in succession; the fifth, Glass Song (2013), marked her first collaboration with bassist Arild Andersen, who would also anchor the tremendous trio album Lions (2015). Since Lions, Eckemoff has concentrated on other configurations including quartet, quintet, sextet and duo, enlisting a mini who’s who of A-list musicians: Mark Turner, Billy Hart, Drew Gress, Peter Erskine, Ralph Alessi, Manu Katché, Chris Potter, Joey Baron, Gerald Cleaver, Joe Locke, Verneri Pohjola, Paul McCandless, and others. The resultant albums comprise one of the most impressively varied yet cohesive bodies of recorded music imaginable, and the production standards are consistently impeccable—a testament to L & H Production’s seriousness of purpose, for all these records were self-released. Nocturnal Animals, one of several double-length albums she’s issued, is Yelena Eckemoff’s fifteenth release in ten years.

A typical Eckemoff record includes poems penned by the pianist herself, and Nocturnal Animals is no exception. Her music is unabashedly programmatic: each album collects pieces illustrative of thematically related poems reproduced in the accompanying booklet. The double album Lions, which allied the pianist with bassist Andersen and drummer Billy Hart, musically evokes aspects of leonine character and behaviour. A different kind of double creature feature, Nocturnal Animals animates the habits of fourteen insects, mammals and reptiles known for covert behaviour—living their lives under the radar, under the cover of night, or even underground. On most of her fourteen tracks Eckemoff uses both drummers to dramatize these animals’ furtive interactions with their environment and cohabitants. By email the pianist explained to me how Christensen and Stronen were recorded alongside each other in the same isolation booth “so they could see each other and exchange cues.” Intuition told her that “’playing animals’ would benefit from richer percussion textures,” but she felt nonetheless nervous about how this augmented trio formation would sound. After hearing the first take of the first piece they recorded, however, Eckemoff and her colleagues felt so happy with the results that they forewent a second.

That first take became the first track on the album. “Cicada” steals into being the way the insect itself patiently develops underground, gradually emerging to shed its exoskeleton—a process shown in the accompanying poem. Eckemoff opens the tune with an insouciant piano melody worthy of Fauré, Andersen provides sonorous bass support, and the two float atop a restless current of percussive interplay. A minute and a half in, we hear a sound familiar from Everblue: Jon Christensen breaking away into a series of off-kilter drum exclamations. As on that record, Christensen here’s the wild card, playing not always with but often fascinatingly against Eckemoff’s and Andersen’s synergy, agitating otherwise calm waters. As the drummer’s double in this not-a-trio, Thomas Strønen complements his elder colleague, filling in gaps and reconciling him to the music’s main thrust. In its melodious, meandering way, “Cicada” sets the template for the whole album: intimate dialogue between piano and bass, enriched with busily cross-hatched percussion textures.

Another track comes across appropriately more weightily: “Grizzly Bear,” which opens with Andersen’s ponderous bass pattern mimicked by Eckemoff’s left hand on the keyboard’s low end. Gradually she ascends into higher regions and breaks into a yearning, aspirational melody—maybe her most gorgeous on this gorgeous album. The melody soars aloft a couple of times, but otherwise the track remains grimly earthbound; after all, Eckemoff (as we know from her poem) is illustrating a mother bear’s arduous quest amid diminishing resources for a place to hibernate and let her cub gestate, a quest punctuated by rays of hope—and enlivened by the eccentric dual drumming of the boys in the isolation booth.

“Grizzly Bear,” by the way, finds a companion piece in “Sea Turtle.” Clocking in at 8:24, this is the second-longest Nocturnal Animals track and exhibits a suite-like sense of epic development as it documents a female sea turtle’s quest to lay and bury eggs and her eventual return to the sea.

The album’s longest—and perhaps slowest—track, “Rattlesnake” proves similarly dramatic, with Soviet conservatory-trained Eckemoff’s steely old-world pianism capturing this creature’s defensive, solitary survivalist spirt. But there’s playfulness too, as the instrumentalists overtly mimic the snake’s frenzied efforts to shed its skin. Snares and toms jerkily channel the animal’s minatory movements; rattling percussion, forebodingly deep-toned piano and restless bass fingerwork convey the reptile’s helpless sense of unease. Vividly illustrative of the pianist’s poem “Rattlesnake,” the tune works just as engagingly as absolute music: even if you haven’t read the words, this music creates a sense of unease, leaving you uncomfortable in your own skin.

Jon Christensen, Yelena Eckemoff, Arild Andersen and Thomas Strønen at Rainbow Studio, Oslo

Perhaps Nocturnal Animals’ most ambitious piece, “Wolf” starts eerily with upper-range, spectral piano and hectic bass interjections, prefacing a winding piano-led narrative that seems to picture the wolf and its prey from a great height. At 2:20 the piano unspools a contemplative melodic line—the calm before a storm, for the “Wolf” poem emphasizes the predator’s patient, methodical surveillance of a deer herd. The storm hits with Lisztian force two minutes later as Eckemoff’s fingers hammer the keyboard, sweepingly completing two descending runs with grand Romantic force. The drama’s aftermath proves eerily loose-ended as Christensen launches unhurriedly into a concluding drum solo that, according to the pianist, was entirely impromptu and extended the piece beyond its intended bounds. The paucity of Christensen’s recent recorded output—which includes a couple of ECM dates with guitarist Jakob Bro (Gefion, 2015; and Returnings, 2018) and two marvellous trio turns with Arild Andersen and pianist Carsten Dahl on Storyville Records (Space Is the Place, 2012; and Under the Rainbow, 2013), as well as Eckemoff’s Everblue—makes all the more precious his maverick presence at April 2018’s Nocturnal Animals session.

The next track, “Hedgehog,” succeeds the Romantic intensity of “Wolf” with Neoclassical sprightliness, the pianist’s technique turning from moodily evocative to crisply mischievous. This piece generates greater headlong momentum, owing to Strønen’s straight-ahead technique. Here and on “Fox,” Eckemoff opted for just the one drummer to allow “a break from [the] sophisticated textures two drummers created playing together and achieve more transparent and swingy drum support in these particular tunes.” Her music pictures the hedgehog in a tricksterish light, and likewise “Fox” conveys the requisite slyness. Eckemoff’s initial jabbed piano notes sound appropriately cocky, and the tune as a whole—like her poem—portrays this creature as wily, restless and fast-acting. With swinging ivories, walking bass and ringing ride cymbal and rim shots, this tune comes as close to straight-ahead bebop piano trioism as Nocturnal Animals gets. There’s even a conventional succession of solos from all three players, Strønen’s in particular sounding hard-driving and precise. On the sleekly fleeting “Lynx”, the other up-tempo piece, Christensen joins back in and the drummers take their tightest tandem turn on the album, interacting so closely as to sound like one.

The follow-up track “Firefly” is fleeting in a different fashion. Here’s a slow, fragile study in paradoxical ephemerality where time seems to stand still yet the titular insect appears and disappears instantly. This exquisite musical statement starts in mid-sentence, with the first note played on bass and sounding like part of an in-progress Andersen solo. Before long the piano enters with gentle steps and commences a tender tune couched continuously in crepitant, flickering percussive touches. According to the pianist, both “Firefly” and “Walkingstick” were recorded with Christensen alone; additional percussion was overdubbed by Strønen later on. But of the four musicians, Andersen here predominates: the Norwegian giant restlessly roams this nocturnal landscape, soloing on and off throughout. Ultimately he ascends the fingerboard to signal song’s end; he reaches for his highest note and the firefly winks out.

One can’t stress enough how central Arild Andersen is to this record, and to the other four Yelena Eckemoff albums he anchors. In fact, their collaborations seem to account for much of his recorded output during the 2010s, alongside those aforementioned Dahl/Andersen/Christensen discs and several Andersen-led ECM trio dates with saxophonist Tommy Smith and the late drummer Paolo Vinaccia (you can read about their 2014 release Mira in my Wall of Sound review). His is a distinctive sound—companionable yet desolate, amiable yet lonely—which, delivered with rock-solid yet dynamic technique, ideally complements Eckemoff’s disciplined approach to the keyboard and to composition.

Each new Yelena Eckemoff release immediately becomes my favourite, so Nocturnal Animals is my favourite for now. Consider the sterling pianism, double bass virtuosity and quirky dual drum kit setup (when is a piano trio not a trio?). Consider the allure of Eckemoff’s compositions, replete with accessible themes yet rich in intricate incidental detail. Consider the artisanal charm of L & H Production’s CD packaging, which reproduces not only all fourteen creature poems but also an aptly moonlit landscape painting (likewise the pianist’s own work). And consider the sound of this recording, engineered by one of the late greats to capture the music with clinical clarity and ambient warmth. What’s not to love?! Across two discs, Nocturnal Animals assembles an embarrassment of riches. When your speakers spill forth this binaural bounty, you may well find a new favourite of your own.

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