Chris Baber for Jazz Views

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.