Donald Elfman for New York City Jazz Records, October issue
Pianist Yelena Eckemoff has made a personal transition to faith but, in these recordings of Biblical psalms, has done so in a quiet fashion and her musical “choir” keeps the vision low-key and beautiful. The psalms are
performed with vocalists and instrumentalists on the first disc and then strictly instrumental on the second. As if to introduce her purpose, “Psalm 31”, originally a song of tender humility, is presented in that fashion by tenor Tomas Cruz, yet his singing belies the larger, operatic notions we have of that voice (also true of his female counterpart, mezzo soprano Kim Mayo.) He’s matched in facility and delicacy by trumpeter Ralph Alessi, whose lines maintain the combination of lightness and strength. Guitarist Ben Monder, violinist Christian Howes and the leader combine solid underpinning as well as unique voices. The instrumental is similar in quiet intensity, Alessi taking over the lead ‘vocal’. Central to this recording is “Psalm 119”, several sections of which (originally designated with Hebrew letters) declare the composer’s newfound following. The teth verse finds Mayo singing lines that lead to the notion that what’s included in Eckemoff’s new faith is indeed, “better than gold and silver”. In the instrumental version, Alessi takes the lead; it’s a little quicker but the sensibility is once again considered and modest. Eckemoff is a deft, mellifluous pianist in her solo. Cruz and Eckemoff begin the nun section of this tune, heartbreakingly simple with the addition of the vocalists singing together underscored by violin. Bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron offer smart and solid punctuation. On the instrumental track, the vocal line is intoned by Howes.
The mood is almost uniformly consistent even while the lines share a good number of Eckemoff’s past directions: “Psalm 110” has hints of Latin rhythms; “Psalm 119” a touch of jazz tinged with modern classical; and a feel for gospel throughout. The most extended tracks are the gorgeously slow takes of the album’s closer, “Psalm 147”, the rhythm, as it develops, suggesting Bach. Eckemoff has said that she composed what she heard inside the psalms and every tune here reflects the passion and inner light of the composer.