The more recent Eckemoff release of the two symbolizes a dramatic departure from her customary all-instrumental approach, though not completely: Better Than Gold and Silver is a two-disc affair, with the first featuring ten vocal-based settings and the second instrumental versions of same. As noteworthy is the subject matter: the project is the first in a planned series of releases featuring settings of Biblical psalms, with the lyrics word-for-word texts taken from the King James Bible and voiced, in this installment, by tenor Tomás Cruz, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, and mezzo-soprano Kim Mayo, a colleague of Cruz’s from the Conservatory. Yet as foundational as the religious dimension is, Better Than Gold and Silver still qualifies as a jazz project, albeit one of a slightly formal kind, as opposed to Christian vocal music; one might think of it as a hybrid recording that combines the sensibilities of jazz musicianship with the stately presentation of sacred vocal texts. Jazz stalwarts were called upon to join the pianist and vocalists, in this case trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, violinist Christian Howes, double bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron. Think of Better Than Gold and Silver as a new addition to religion-inspired jazz works that include Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Ellington’s Sacred Concerts.
Whether delivered by vocalist or instrumentalist, Eckemoff’s melodies are strong throughout, so much so you might find yourself hearing echoes of them once the recording’s over. The vocal half begins strongly with Cruz’s pure voice and clear enunciation helping to distinguish “Psalm 131,” which also impresses for the sympathetic accompaniment the others provide when concise turns by Monder, Howes, and Alessi extend the plaintive character of the vocal. Appealing contrast declares itself immediately thereafter when Mayo invests the lively “Psalm 119 Teth” with a soulful performance, her vocal also complemented by solos, this time by Alessi and Gress. Typically the vocalists appear in separate songs, but they’re both featured during the slow, blues-inflected “Psalm 119 Lamed” where their strongly contrasting voices blend nicely (jazz singer Jackie Gage also contributes to the cut). Particularly memorable is “Psalm 147” for the ponderous, piano-sprinkled intro and the stately melodic lines voiced in unison by Cruz and Howes.
Eckemoff clearly gave considerable thought to precisely where the vocal and instrumental elements would appear in a given arrangement; the two often occur in sequence, but they sometimes double up (hear, for example, in “Psalm 110” the trumpeter play the vocal melody in unison with Mayo before stepping forth for a punchy solo) and often interweave. The songs are, as a result, richly layered and intricately structured yet never feel excessively complex, and the integration of the different resources and the balance achieved between them is realized with immense skill by the leader. The pianist takes a number of elegant, artfully constructed solos but also cedes generous solo space to her partners.
It might be tempting to think of the instrumental disc as a bonus add-on of secondary importance. In fact, it proves as rewarding as the first for the simple fact that the melodies sung by the vocalists in the first half are handled in the second by instrumentalists, and as a result the listener is treated to extended episodes featuring the players operating in front-line soloist modes. If anything, the slightly longer second half allows one to appreciate all the more how much in tune the musicians are with one another, as well as their advanced artistry as individuals. Judging from the inspired playing on “Psalm 119 Teth,” “Psalm 110,” and the muscularly swinging “Psalm 58,” to cite three examples, it certainly sounds as if Alessi, Howes, Monder, and Eckemoff enjoyed digging into the vocal melodies and maximizing the tunes’ harmonic potential. Similar to disc one, a highlight in the second part is the thirteen-minute rendering of “Psalm 147,” with Howes and Monder voicing the themes and Eckemoff decorating the performance with trills and descending runs.
It also would be wrong to interpret her decision to release a religion-themed album as an attempt to convert listeners; Better Than Gold and Silver is instead a 142-minute expression of deep personal belief that she’s long wanted to share. Consistent with that position, she concludes her detailed liner notes with the hope that her settings “will reach the hearts of all listeners, no matter whether their interests lie in [the] religious sphere or strictly the musical domain—or both.”