I Am a Stranger in This World is pianist and composer Yelena Eckemoff’s second volume of settings for the Bible’s Book of Psalms. The first, 2018’s double-length Better Than Gold and Silver, offered a top-shelf sextet, with mezzo-soprano Kim Mayo and tenor Thomas Cruz on disc one, while the second disc presented the pieces instrumentally, as they are likewise offered here. Her sidemen include trumpeter Ralph Alessi and bassist Drew Gress — both played on the 2018 outing — electric guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nasheet Waits. Violinist Christian Howes and guitarist Ben Monder replace Rogers and Waits on three tunes that were left off Better Than Gold and Silver.
Opener “As Chaff Before the Wind” weds lyrical post-bop to modalism with a hint of Latin. Alessi’s horn plays the lyric with total commitment to its bittersweet melody. Eckemoff’s piano offers colorful shapes and shades, underscoring his lines while extending the harmonic frame. Rogers follows Alessi in soloing on the melody in canny interplay with Eckemoff. “Make Haste to Help Me” commences on the blues tip with the pianist, trumpeter, and guitarist offering tonal inventions and trading lines. The piano solo cuts across the blues, hard bop, swing, and classical music with consummate taste. Alessi adds his own poignant phrases before killer comping by Rogers, as Waits swings the backbeat. The set’s title track is also a holdover. Howes duets with Eckemoff before the harmony separates and the two play in call-and-response. She adds synth to her piano on “Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass” for added timbral balance. Alessi delivers a gorgeous solo early on. Howes follows, as Monder floods the backdrop with glistening chordal shapes before Eckemoff solos in the upper register, cutting a wide swathe for her sidemen, who return with moody intensity. “Keep Not Your Silence” initiates as a fusion tune, with rolling drums, biting guitar, rumbling electric bass, and haunting organ. A muted horn joins piano in a bouncy theme before Rogers’ Stratocaster funks it up. “I Shall Not Want” is a loose, rowdy, yet intricate blues filled with gorgeous interplay between Rogers and Alessi, as Eckemoff drives the rhythm section with fills, accents, and a gorgeous coda before returning to her blues walk. Closer “Every Beast of the Field” features both guitarists — Rogers overdubbed his part in post-production. A long, suite-like composition, it weds a classical theme from the pianist and Howes to Eastern-tinged modalism to prog rock and a colorful, Gil Evans-esque harmonic palette. The trumpet, guitars, and rhythm section buoy the frontline players, adding lyricism and warmth. The middle section holds freely improvised group abstraction for several minutes before the pianist reintroduces the theme. The guitarists and violinist follow. Eckemoff conjures a majestic final theme supported by all players. I Am a Stranger in This World is stellar — a profound balm and affirmation no matter your beliefs.
As a conceptualist, composer, and pianist, Eckemoff seemingly knows no bounds.