The prolific Russian-born, North Carolina-based pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff adds a sacred dimension to the ambitious series of concept albums in her extensive catalogue her new 2-CD set Better Than Gold and Silver. Due for September 21 release on her imprint L&H Production, it’s the first in a projected series of recordings featuring Eckemoff’s settings of Biblical psalms. The new album includes both vocal and instrumental versions of 10 songs she conceived as works of modern jazz rather than part of the Christian music canon.
While the album’s lyrics — beautifully sung by tenor Tomás Cruz and mezzo-soprano Kim Mayo — are word-for-word verses from the King James Bible (the album’s title is based on verse 72 from Psalm 119: “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver”), Eckemoff explains in her liner notes that the music is what she “heard behind the words.” What she heard and composed is highly melodic, multilayered, intricately structured jazz that takes full advantage not only of her virtuoso pianism, but also of the distinctive talents of the all-star team of instrumentalists she enlisted for the project: trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, violinist Christian Howes, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron.
The genesis of Eckemoff’s interest in composing jazz settings for sacred texts dates back to her time in her native Moscow, where she and her husband were searching for something to fill the spiritual void around them. They found it in the hymns and religious songs of the city’s only Baptist church and its choir and pipe organ; soon, these former atheists were drawn into Christianity and baptized.
Looking for texts with which she could musically commune with her newfound faith, Eckemoff turned to the psalms in a Russian bible, but had trouble understanding its Old Slavonic language. She searched in vain for an English bible in a country that banned religious texts. Eventually an American missionary she’d written to sent her a Bible adapted for people speaking English as a second language.
Years later, having overcome overwhelming odds and emigrated to the U.S., Eckemoff was informed by a minister in her North Carolina hometown that she had been using the wrong version of the Bible. She discovered the King James version was indeed deeper, richer, and more poetic, and its psalms inspired this, her first collection of sacred texts in jazz settings.
Yelena Eckemoff has been composing since she was four years old, her musical impressions taken from her mother, a pianist and teacher. Years of academic studies at Gnessins School for musically gifted children, followed by the Moscow Conservatory, provided a solid foundation in classical music. But as she grew into her teens she developed an interest in other musical styles, like pop, rock, and jazz, although this was a time when jazz recordings were scarce in Russia.
Eckemoff attended Dave Brubeck’s legendary concert in Moscow in 1987, a pivotal moment for her and many other Russian musicians. Though she had already started playing jazz before hearing Brubeck, this was one of the first jazz concerts she had attended, and she was so impressed she formed her own band and “tried to play jazz.”
Stylistically, Eckemoff’s writing and playing reference classical music, the blues, jazz-rock fusion, free-jazz and, occasionally, funk. Her recordings this decade have each dealt conceptually with a particular theme. Glass Song (2013), her first project pairing Arild Andersen and Peter Erskine (who surprisingly had never played together before), features songs about rain, melting ice, and clouds. A Touch of Radiance (2014), with Mark Turner, Joe Locke, George Mraz, and Billy Hart, is dedicated to happiness while Lions (2015), featuring Andersen and Hart,
captures life in the savannah with songs about those majestic cats and their cubs as well as migrating birds and tropical rains. Eckemoff’s previous release, Desert (May 2018), captures musically the mysteries and mesmerizing allure of one of nature’s most daunting environments.
Better Than Gold and Silver is an exceptional addition to the lineage of works inspired by religion like Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and Steve Reich’s own interpretation of the Psalms, Tehillim. “I’ve been smitten and humbled by the profundity of the psalms,” Eckemoff confesses, “not only as sacred texts, but as a marvelous treasure of the poetic art. I found out for myself that there’s a lot to be learned from these verses even in our modern world about the eternal questions of life and death — what is the meaning of life, what makes people happy, what we leave behind after we die, and where to find strength to go about the daily labors and survive in the face of
Yelena Eckemoff will showcase Better Than Gold and Silver — with Tomás Cruz, voc; Ralph Alessi, tpt; Jeff Miles, g; Drew Gress, b; Jochen Rueckert, d — at a free concert on Friday 10/5, 7pm, St. Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue, NYC.
Press Release by Terri Hinte, August 11, 2018