Russian-born pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff began setting verses from the Bible's Book of Psalms shortly after her conversion to Christianity, even before her emigration to the United States. But she waited until she had considerable experience working with jazz musicians before producing her jazz arrangements. They were first recorded on her album Better Than Gold and Silver
[L&H Production, 2018], which presented ten Psalm settings in both vocal and instrumental versions. The detailed story of how Yelena Eckemoff came to set Psalms to music is included in the booklet for that album. Here, in the second installment of the Psalms set to music by Eckemoff, the interpretations are entirely instrumental, but as before Eckemoff's compositions are driven by melody, and these melodies come from a word-for-word setting of the Psalms, even in the absence of vocal versions (which exist in score form, although they are not heard on this album).
The album title and its haunting cover paintinga dramatic departure from Eckemoff's usual nature studiesare meant to speak to the contemporary mood of disorientation, a sense of uncertainty about when life will return to normal. For Yelena Eckemoff the Psalms offer a source of hope, as well as the solace of a connection to a higher power as one of possible ways of surviving in difficult times. In the composer's view that higher power could be sacred or secular, and like the earlier settings, this music is not intended to be liturgical.
While there are three tracks from 2018 release (left off of Better Than Gold and Silver
due to space limitations), the bulk of this music comes from session that took place in New York City
in December, 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Musicians came to the Bunker Studio in the aftermath of a record-setting snowfall that covered New York in a foot of white just a day before. The bandmates were uneasy, but also delighted to be making music with others for the first time in months, lending a special feeling to their playing. The free group improvisations lingered on, as the elation of working in a studio environment after months-long isolation encouraged all of the players to stretch out. Nasheet Waits
spoke everyone else's mind when he exclaimed: "Man, it's so good to be playing again!"
Eckemoff's new Psalms display an expanded stylistic range as well. Who knew that a Psalm could sound like blues? "I Shall Not Want" embraces the vibrant blues feeling, highlighting trumpeter Ralph Alessi
and guitarist Adam Rogers
(who played on Eckemoff's In a Shadow of a Cloud
[L & H Production 2017], along with bassist Drew Gress
, and returned for the 2020 tracks). "Lighten My Eyes" has a similar tone, again featuring Rogers and Alessi, backed with Eckemoff's very bluesy piano. "Keep Not Your Silence" ventures into 1990's-style dance music (also featuring one of Alessi's best trumpet solos), but also has space for a soaring dramatic section led by Rogers's 1974 Fender Stratocaster guitar, and an abstract rubato interlude. Yelena's early recording projects in the 1990s had employed MIDI keyboards, but here for the first time on her jazz recordings her keyboards are expanded beyond acoustic piano to include organ on "Keep Not Your Silence," Fender Rhodes electric piano on "Truth in His Heart" and "The Wine of Astonishment," as well as some synthesizers on "At Midnight I Will Rise" and "Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass,"" subtly broadening the group's timbral palette.
Since the melodies "sing" Biblical texts, the length of each composition is determined by the length of the psalm being set. The two longest pieces both came from the 2016 session: "Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass" and "Every Beast of the Field" both run over fifteen minutes (the third 2016 track is the title tune "I Am a Stranger in This World"). Because they include violinist Christian Howes
(who was not on the 2020 session) they are easily distinguishable from the later recordings, and the atmospheric guitar playing of Ben Monder
also sets them apart. "Every Beast of the Field" concludes the album, and is unique due to the presence of both guitarists (with Adam Rogers adding his part via overdubbing on a 2009 Gibson Les Paul guitar). Its lyrical melodies are woven into an epic form, capped off by a triumphant restatement of the main theme."
Eckemoff was joined by a remarkable group of musicians on both of these sessions. The 2016 band was trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, violinist Christian Howes, bassist Drew Gress
, and drummer Joey Baron
. The 2020 recording reunited Ralph Alessi and Drew Gress, but without the violin, with guitarist Adam Rogers substituting for Ben Monder, and Nasheet Waits replacing Joey Baron.
Another difference setting apart the first installment of the Psalms, Better Than Gold and Silver, and the second, I Am a Stranger in This World
is that for the latter Eckemoff has chosen to base the name of each Psalm on the quote taken from one of its verses and slightly adapted to modern English (however, in the vocal versions the text follows the Old KJV). For those who would like to refer to the scripture, here is the guide where to find the 'name-giving' verse:
"As Chaff Before the Wind"Psalm 35, v. 5
"Lighten My Eyes"Psalm 13, v. 3
"Make Haste to Help Me"Psalm 70, v. 1
"I Am A Stranger in This World"Psalm 119 Gimel, v.19
"Truth in His Heart"Psalm 15, v. 2
"Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass"Psalm 72, v. 6
"Keep Not Your Silence"Psalm 83, v. 1
"The Wine of Astonishment"Psalm 60, v. 3
"I Shall Not Want"Psalm 23, v. 1
"At Midnight I Will Rise"Psalm 119 Cheth, v. 62
"Every Beast of the Field"Psalm 104, v. 11
These are Drew Gress' thoughts about playing Yelena's music: "Yelena follows her own muse and seems to be uninfluenced by current trends in the music scene writ large. She is an organically grown original. That the music she makes reflects her true self was, and is inevitable. She is making her heart's music that is deeply meaningful for her. When artists do that, they connect with listeners, and each other, in a deep way, as there is a mutual recognition of each other's humanity. Each project of hers illuminates another facet of her world, and affords me the opportunity to do what it is I do in new ways... whether that be providing underpinnings of contrapuntal design, cushioning rich organ pads with lush bottom, or contributing unexpected chatterbox funkiness to a landscape of quite a different character. She creates her own new worlds... and as an improviser, you have the chance to learn from her, from that world, and from yourself once an inhabitant."
Liner Notes copyright © 2024 Mark Sullivan.
I Am a Stranger in This World can be purchased here.
Contact Mark Sullivan at All About Jazz.
Freelance journalist & musician. I love improvisation & live electronics, in jazz and experimental music of all sorts.
As Chaff Before the Wind, Lighten My Eyes, Make Hste to Help Me, I Am a Stranger in This World, Truth in
His Heart, Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass, Keep Not Your Silence, The Wine of Astonishment, I Shall Not
Want, At Midnight I Will Rise, Every Beast of the Field.