Pianist Yelena Eckemoff‘s best work is typically her quietest material. Over the years, she’s explored a wide range of sounds, but where she really stands out is with her slow, wintry, often Messiaen-esque tunes. Yet her lavish new double album Adventures of the Wildflower – streaming at Spotify – is her most colorful and arguably best release yet. Stevie Wonder may have beaten her to the concept of the secret life of plants forty years ago, but the music here is as fascinatingly diverse as the floral kingdom itself. And the central flower here, eerily named Columbine, does not fade. Much as these plants send out pollen and fragrance, and even converse, what they do most of the time here, it seems, is battle the elements. This is a LONG album: hang with it and you will be rewarded.
The opening track, The Ground, sets the stage, Jarmo Saari kicking it off with an operatic swell on his theremin, later adding spare, resonant guitar chords over Eckemoff’s steady forward drive, while bassist Antti Lötjönen and drummer Olavi Louhivuori slowly emerge from the shadows. Vibraphonist Panu Savolainen’s starry solo backs away for the band to bring everything full circle, mysteriously.
Germination begins as an icy, deep space-scape, Savolainen’s glimmer signaling a bit of bustling swing before the twinkling chill returns: pushing up through this icy ground is scary. Eckemoff portrays Weeding the Garden as swinging between the baroque, a jaunty, surrealistic shuffle and a darkly bluesy vamp, Saari and eventually the rest of the band taking a wry hands-on approach. Soprano saxophonist Jukka Perko introduces Dog Chasing a Mouse, whose liveliness and humor is laced with phantasmagoria: poor mouse!
Likewise, Rain has a frequently gorgeous bittersweetness, Eckemoff supplying neoromantic crush but also verdant cheer in tandem with Savolainen. The swooping triangulation that opens Home By the Fence is foreshadowing: this homey pastoral scene turns out to be totally Lynchian. Then the band go into carnivalesque mode for Chickens, which is a lot closer to a picture at Moussorgsky’s dead friend’s exhibition than, say, Link Wray.
Is the lingering, fugal counterpoint of Drought a portrait of the garden scheming how to weather a dry spell? If so, desolation and struggle seem to take over. The thundershower that winds up the first half of the record takes awhile to get going, the band romping triumphantly out of the suspense, Perko’s Balkan-tinged solo setting up a roaring guitar-fueled peak.
The second disc opens with the slowly swaying Winter Slumber, Eckemoff’s languid, expansive solo at the center: the interweave between vibes and piano as it brightens is absolutely luscious. Individual voices push upward and begin to bound around in Waking Up in the Spring, a subtle jazz waltz.
Interestingly, there’s an elegaic quality to the baroque interplay of Buds and Flowers: it’s the album’s most conflictedly captivating track. The inner soul ballad in Butterflies, piano paired once again with the vibes, could be the album’s most unselfconsciously lyrical moment, the theremin adding a surreal touch.
Gently rhythmic belltone piano and vibes holding the bouncy Hummingbirds together, with echoes of pastoral Pink Floyd. The wistful, Russian folk-tinged waltz Children Playing with Seed Pods could be called Milkweed at a Funeral, at least until Perko pulls the song into cheerier territory. The scene where Columbine finally goes the way of all garden plants has a stately, bolero-ish sway and encroaching echoes of the macabre from both guitar and vibes, assembled around an energetic polyrhythmic interlude.
But all hope is not lost. Another Winter is the most echoey, improvisational segment here, Perko leading the sprouts up from hibernation. In the end there are Baby Columbines, and undulating wee-hours contentment from the band to match.
As a bonus, Eckemoff includes a charmingly hand-drawn 33-page fable in the cd booklet, further illustrating Columbine’s arduous tale of struggle and renewal. That we should all be so tenacious at this pivotal moment in history.