I liked it so much that I bought it a short time later for a good friend. He, Victor, has become a great supporter and speaks to his circles about that “new discovery.”This album was and is very special to me as also the Psalms from the Bible speak most deeply to me. If I’m in a phase I can’t read or comprehend something else, I still love to be inspired by verses from the psalms. And I also love the title “better than gold and silver.” Yelena, you understood in those create moments and situations to wrap not only the spirituality but as well the precious poetry of old into your music. In your art you are kind of awaking the old feelings of the psalmist to new life. While listening, your soul is resting and slowly sliding into a world of dreams… But not into dreams of indifference, no, it is like padding through a gate into a world of praise and worship that is binding together the biblical praise of old times with a very personal contemporary attitude of praise. Colours are rising up, too, before the inner eyes of mine as a listener, – that helps to enlighten the words of the psalms and give them a more personal touch, a little bit as if the own heart is singing the verses on its own along with the psalmists. That’s my impression and feelings with “Better Than Gold And Silver.”
Better Than Gold And Silver
YELENA ECKEMOFF – Better Than Gold And Silver
L & H: CD806 151-28
Yelena Eckemoff: piano; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Ben Monder: electric guitar; Christian Howes: violin; Drew Gress: double bass; Joey Baron: drums; Tomas Cruz: tenor (voice); Kim Mayo: mezzo soprano
Recorded August 15th and 16th 2016 by James A. Farber and Owen Mulholland at Sear Sound Studio, New York, and December 22nd 2016 and August 21st 2017 at Bunker Studios, New York
This collection of tunes takes its title from the words on the 119th psalm in the King James version of the Bible: “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.” In the liner notes, Eckemoff provides a very moving account of the trials facing her family in their emigration from Russia to the US as born again Christians (including separation from her children). Reading this account and knowing that these pieces are settings of a selection of psalms might lead you to skip over this review and ignore the music here. In closing her liner notes, Eckemoff says, “I’d like to believe that this implementation of the word-by-word settings of the Psalms, both vocal and instrumental, will reach the hearts of all listeners, no matter whether their interests lie in religious sphere or strictly the musical domain – or both.” I would place myself squarely in the category of ‘musical domain’ and would highly recommend listening to this set. There are two CDs in the package – the first has the settings with tenor or mezzo soprano delivering heart-felt renderings of the words of the King James Bible.
In the liner notes, she explains that her early compositions used one of the ‘modern’ English versions of the Bible (which all tend to remove the poetry from the words and leave only a dry, bureaucratic rendition of what the translator assumes to be the intended meaning). Discovering the King James Bible was, for her, a revelation – and I would guess that reading the words in this version of the Psalms would, for someone who spoke English as a second language be challenging, forcing you into the sounds and the rhythms before finding meaning. You get the sense, from these tunes, of this battle of finding meaning in sounds and rhythms that might not be entirely familiar. But you also get the sense that this is set in a musical environment that is instantly recognisable; Eckemoff has the surety of touch of Duke Ellington when he played piano and this leads to a style of composition that makes absolute sense.
The musical accompaniment follows the beautiful chord structures and elegant piano lines that Eckemoff provides, and this alone is a rewarding listen. Both singers deliver the words and imbue them with a soulful meaning, while also creating clear and compelling tunes. For me, it was the longer instrumental versions of the tunes that really drew me in. This shouldn’t be surprising when you look again at the musicians here (and when you know that Eckemoff has produced over a dozen recordings prior to this). I would hazard a guess that musicians of this calibre lined up to play on this recording not because of religious conviction (whatever their beliefs) but because of the absolutely perfect elegance of the compositions. These really are piece that deserve to be heard as widely as possible. Of course, Eckemoff is not the first person to set the Psalms to music. But all too often composers take the ‘rhythm’ of the words and use this to pinion the music; Eckemoff lets the music free and, ironically, gives the words greater significance.
Like no other form of music, jazz represents the musical culture of the USA. What happens when a Russian makes the idiom of jazz her own can be experienced vividly on this double CD. Rachmaninov meets Monk, Stravinsky meets Charlie Parker, Shostakovich meets Bill Evans, East meets West, Classic meets Jazz. Absolutely fascinating, how Yelena Eckemoff and her companions combine different traditions; these are Drew Gress with incredibly varied sounds on the double bass, Joey Barron with an extremely imaginative sound work on the drums, Eckemoff himself sometimes cautiously in the setting, sometimes eruptively on the grand piano. Impressionism and avant-garde interweave to ever new surprise moments, agile and melancholic, energetic and silent, expressive and lyrical, in majestic, massive clusters and moments of complete silence. As always in life, of course, reality is superior to clichés and patterns. Thus the music of Eckemoff can be interpreted less from the dialectic of supposed collective identities than from the ambivalence, the ambiguity of human existence in general. And where else can this material be found in abundance than in the Bible? Their psalms are masterfully interpreted on one CD, sometimes vocally, sometimes purely instrumentally.
Wie keine andere Musikform repräsentiert der Jazz die Musikkultur der USA. Was passiert, wenn eine Russin sich das Idiom des Jazz zu eigen macht, ist auf der vorliegenden Doppel-CD eindringlich zu erleben. Rachmaninow trifft auf Monk, Strawinsky auf Charlie Parker, Schostakowitsch auf Bill Evans, Ost auf West, Klassik auf Jazz. Absolut faszinierend, wie Yelena Eckemoff und ihre Begleiter unterschiedlichste Traditionen verknüpfen; dies sind u. a. Drew Gress mit ungemein variantenreichen Sounds am Kontrabass, Joey Barron mit äußerst fantasievoller Klangarbeit am Schlagzeug, Eckemoff selbst mal behutsam in der Tonsetzung, mal eruptiv am Flügel. Impressionismus und Avantgarde verweben sich zu stets neuen Überraschungsmomenten, agil und melancholisch, energetisch und still, expressiv und lyrisch, in majestätischen, wuchtigen Clustern und Momenten vollkommenen Schweigens. Wie immer im Leben ist freilich die Realität erhaben über Klischees und Muster. So lässt sich die Musik der Eckemoff von Vorurteilen und Schubladen befreit denn auch weniger aus der Dialektik vermeintlicher kollektiver Identitäten interpretieren als aus der Ambivalenz, der Zwiespältigkeit des menschlichen Daseins schlechthin. Und wo anders ist dieser Stoff in Hülle und Fülle zu finden als in der Bibel? Deren Psalmen werden auf jeweils einer CD mal vokalistisch, mal rein instrumental meisterhaft interpretiert.
Better Than Gold and Silver Yelena Eckemoff, Klavier (Steinway-D); Tomäs Cruz, Stimme; Kim Mayo, Stimme; Ralph Alessi, Trompete; Ben Monder, E-Gitarre; Christian Howes, Violine; Drew Gress, Bass; Joey Baron, Drums L & H Production 01915128 (Vertrieb: Inakustik)
Classically trained in Soviet-era Moscow, Yelena Eckemoff is an interesting phenomenon. Arriving in New York in 1991, she initially pursued interests in classical, folk and religious music. It wasn’t until 2009 that her career as a jazz artist began in earnest, and this is now the 13th straight release in a recent discography in which she performs on equal terms with some of the finest musicians in the idiom. From ECM stalwarts Arild Andersen, Jon Christensen, Paul McCandless and Peter Erskine to the elite cadre of New Yorkers heard here, Eckemoff’s music can perhaps wryly be described as being amongst the finest recordings that Manfred Eicher never produced.
This somewhat unusual project traces its roots back to collapse of the Soviet Union. Eckemoff was one of many Russians who rediscovered a sense of religious spirituality during those turbulent years. Adapting 10 selected psalms, the music is presented in both vocal and instrumental versions. The format makes every sense given the devotional nature of the music, but perhaps revealingly the vocals of Cruz (tenor) and Mayo (mezzo soprano) were retro-fitted long after the group’s initial visit to the studio.
Unmistakably heartfelt and often stunningly beautiful, the pieces nevertheless seem relatively stiff and formal when contrasted with the longer and more organic instrumentals. Rarely less than sublime, the group has that same symbiotic connectedness as John Abercrombie’s latter-day quartets. A different member of the ensemble carries the vocal line each time, tracing adulatory melodic arcs before dissolving into blissful passages of improvisation. Overall this ambitious project is a bit of a curate’s egg, but certainly not one lacking in intrinsic quality and worth.
If you truly wish to explore the spiritual roots of jazz, then this independent release on a small label is well worth investigating. Russian emigré composer and pianist Yelena Eckemoff went to considerable trouble and indeed personal anguish in her life, separated for a while from her children, before the family were finally reunited in the United States. Her conversion to the Baptist church during the end of the Soviet union gave her a new purpose in life and, as a professional musician, she wished to reflect that new religious identity in her creative work.
On this recording, and not her first, divided into two separate yet closely related parts on each CD, we hear the vocal and instrumental representations of the same compositions. She has surrounded herself with some of the top jazz musicians in New York, several of whom regularly record for the ECM label, and these include Joey Baron on drums, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ben Moder on electric guitar, and Drew Gress on double bass, with the violin of Christian Howes and on the first CD only vocals of Tomás Cruz, tenor, and Kim Mayo, mezzo soprano. To these ears, the vocal interpretations are closer to classical music than jazz, but they are still worth listening to in comparison to the jazz instrumentals. As a whole, all the music has been inspired by the psalms of the second King James bible, but you need not have any interest in or knowledge of the contents of that book in order to appreciate the music which can be listened to on its own terms. The music works best when taken at medium tempo with several instruments in conversation with one another, as illustrated on, ‘Psalm 58’, which starts off with a guitar intro and then acquires a head of steam with trumpet and guitar engaging in a modern-day cutting edge contest. A laid back blues feel permeates, ‘Psalm 119 Lawed’, with the bass lines of Gress betraying a strong influence of J.S. Bach, while further classical hues are manifest on, Psalm 119 Nun’, with a delicate duet between piano and violin. Above all else, it is the reposing tranquility and calming re-assurance of the music that the listener will warm to as both a deeply soothing and healing experience. Quite possibly, a greater variation of tempo would have enhanced proceedings here. Ideally, one would like to hear this formation in a live context, in a suitably spiritual surrounding such as a church. With so many new releases coming out and often going under the radar, it would be a crying shame if this excellent effort went undetected. It just makes it into the best new recording list of the year and deservedly so.
The Russian pianist-composer’s chamber jazz-ish take on verses from the book of Psalms (two CDs, with and without vocal) is pleasantly easy-going yet too undemanding, even if it does offer an impressive array of New York’s leftfield jazz heads, including Ralph Alessi, Ben Monder, Drew Gress and Joey Baron.
By now Russian pianist Yelena Eckemoff is on permanent ground in North Carolina and has dedicated herself to jazz music with a series of recordings that each time leave us surprised at all she can express. Also in this new recording, dedicated to the reinterpretation of ten biblical psalms, she excites us and makes us partakers of a creative world that seems inexhaustible. In the liner notes she tells a lot about her life, about how she arrived in the USA and how the reading of the bible in English inspired her. He wrote the first piece performed here, Psalm 131, then from there came other ideas, the compositions inspired by nine other psalms and the decision to present the music in two versions, the one with the singers Tomás Cruz, tenor, and Kim Mayo, mezzo soprano, and that only instrumental. The chosen musicians are always among the best on the music scene, this time only American, able to extract the maximum from his compositions, to put their personal voice at the service of the composer and pianist and to make the music unique. Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ben Monder electric guitar, Christian Howes violin, Drew Gress on double bass and Joey Baron on drums are the sideman chosen, involved in a special project, which can be combined with other works of music inspired by religious tradition, the Sacred Concerts by Duke Ellington from 1968 and Tehillim by Steve Reich from 2000, dedicated to a minimalist interpretation of the psalms. There is room for improvisations, for moments of swing or Latin music, moments in which the musicians give a particular color to a music inspired by the liturgy, but that basically represents today’s jazz. Great record, solid and rich in musicality.
Ormai la pianista russa Yelena Eckemoff è in pianta stabile in North Carolina e si è dedicata alla musica jazz con una serie di incisioni che ogni volta ci lasciano sorpresi per tutto quello che riesce a esprimere. Anche in questa nuova incisione, dedicata alla rilettura di dieci salmi biblici, ci emoziona e ci ci rende partecipi di un mondo creativo che sembra inesauribile. Nelle liner notes ci racconta molto della sua vita, di come è arrivata in USA e di come la lettura della bibbia in inglese la abbia ispirata. Ha scritto il primo brano qui eseguito, Psalm 131 poi da lì sono arrivate altre idee, le composizioni ispirate ad altri nove salmi e decisione di presentare la musica in due versioni, quella con i cantanti Tomás Cruz tenore e Kim Mayo mezzo soprano, e quella soltanto strumentale. I musicisti scelti sono come sempre fra i migliori presenti sulla scena musicale, questa volta soltanto americana, in grado di estrarre il massimo dalle sue composizioni, di mettere la loro voce personale al servizio della compositrice e pianista e di rendere la musica unica. Ralph Alessi alla tromba, Ben Monder chitarra elettrica, Christian Howes violino, Drew Gress al contrabbasso e Joey Baron alla batteria sono i sideman scelti, coinvolti in un progetto speciale, che si può accomunare ad altre opere di musica ispirata dalla tradizione religiosa, i Sacred Concerts di Duke Ellington del 1968 e Tehillim di Steve Reich del 2000, dedicato ad una interpretazione minimalista dei salmi. C’è spazio per le improvvisazioni, per momenti di swing o di musica latina, momenti in cui i musicisti danno un particolare colore ad una musica ispirata da quella liturgica, ma che in fondo rappresenta il jazz di oggi. Gran bel disco, compatto e ricco di musicalità.
YELENA ECKEMOFF and her 8-person ensemble, including 1 singer, 1 singer, have set 10 psalms from the Bible to music with the original texts for the new work “Better than Gold and Silver”. The words are sung with calm, occasionally reminiscent of the special sound of ECM, modern jazzy compositions slow in tempo, the piano gives the melodies, the very well-chosen band (Joey Baron, Ralph Alessi, Ben Monder) underlays the discreet rhythm and improvises prudently. If you don’t like the bible, you don’t have to be sad, it’s a double CD, the 2 record contains the same titles, mostly played a bit longer, but without any vocals.
YELENA ECKEMOFF und ihr 8 köpfiges Ensemble, darunter 1 Sängerin ,1 Sänger, haben für das neue Werk „Better than Gold and Silver” 10 Psalmen aus der Bibel mit den Originaltexten vertont. Über ruhige, gelegentlich an den speziellen Sound von ECM erinnernd, modern jazzige, im Tempo langsame Kompositionen werden die Worte gesungen, das Piano gibt die Melodien, die sehr gut ausgesuchte Band (Joey Baron, Ralph Alessi, Ben Monder) unterlegt dezenten Rhythmus und improvisiert besonnen. Wer es mit der Bibel nicht so hat, muss nicht traurig sein, es ist eine Doppel CD, die 2 Platte enthält die gleichen Titel, meist etwas länger ausgespielt, dafür aber ganz ohne Gesang.
Russian-born pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff began setting verses from the Bible’s Book of Psalms shortly after her conversion to Catholicism, even before her emigration to the United States. But she waited until she had considerable experience working with jazz musicians before attempting these jazz arrangements. The first disc in this double disc set presents settings with two vocalists, tenor Tomas Cruzand mezzo-soprano Kim Mayo, accompanied by a remarkable band: trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, violinist Christian Howes, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron (plus the composer on piano). The second disc is devoted to instrumental versions, with soloists taking the vocal lines.
The album title is a paraphrase of a line in Psalm 119, the longest psalm set here. The full text includes 22 verses, one for each letter in the Hebrew alphabet: the five verses Eckemoff set form half of the album’s ten tracks. But it is Cruz’s sweet tenor singing “Psalm 131” that opens the set with a ballad feel, supported by Howes’ violin obbligato and sensitive guitar, violin and trumpet solos. Mayo’s clear mezzo soprano gets support from Alessi’s trumpet obbligato on “Psalm 119 Teth,” the first of the Psalm 119 settings.
Eckemoff’s jazz compositions have always been notable for their through-composed qualities. They rarely follow the conventional head-solos-head structure of jazz performance, employing sectional structures that are unique to each piece. That quality is even more pronounced here, as she sets the Psalms word-for-word: the music adapts to the rhythm of the words, not the other way around. Recognizing that there needs to be space for improvisation, sometimes there is a contrasting section devoted to soloists, for example the Latin feel that emerges during the middle of “Psalm 110.” There is still space for swing, as in “Psalm 119 Lamed,” where the same gentle swing groove supports vocals from both Mayo and Cruz, as well as trumpet and piano solos. Closer “Psalm 147” (the longest track by far at over twelve minutes) includes instrumental interludes between the sung verses, music that elaborates upon the accompaniment patterns.
The instrumental disk presents the same songs in the same order, with instruments carrying the vocal lines, and with different, more open solos. The instrumental versions are not dramatically different—not least because they were recorded in the same sessions as the vocal ones, with the vocals added later—but they do prove that Eckemoff’s compositions can stand up quite well without the words. The first couple of vocal parts fall to Alessi’s trumpet, a warm expressive voice. Then Howes’ violin takes the next two, a comfortable choice for what are essentially art songs. The two alternate the vocal role for most of the set, but bassist Gress expands his introduction to “Psalm 126” on the vocal disk into a full-throated statement of the theme. The end instrumental section of “Psalm 119 Jod” builds into a free section, ranging more widely than the vocal version had.
Eckemoff rightly considers this music to be modern jazz, not liturgical music. It takes its place alongside Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts (Prestige Records, 1968) and Steve Reich’s Tehillim (ECM New Series, 2000) (which presents his minimalist interpretation of the psalms). It also represents yet another new color in the rainbow of her recording projects, each different from the last.
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.”