I Am a Stranger in This World shares many qualities with other releases in Yelena Eckemoff’s discography. A painting by the Moscow-born pianist adorns the cover, stellar musicians help bring her compositions to vivid life, and the release, an expansive double-CD set, appears on her own L&H Production label. There are telling differences, however: whereas previous releases include multiple, often nature-based images by her, there’s but a single, city-oriented one this time, and the feelings of isolation and despair conveyed by the album title and cover image reflect a desire for liberation consistent with the period during which much of the album was recorded.
As the pandemic was wreaking havoc, Eckemoff, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Nasheet Waits gathered in NYC in December 2020 to record eight of the eleven tracks; the other three are holdovers from the 2016 sessions for her Better Than Gold and Silver release and feature guitarist Ben Monder, drummer Joey Baron, and violinist Christian Howes in place of Rogers and Waits. The presence of Eckemoff, Alessi, and Gress on all of the material ensures continuity reigns throughout. One more difference is worth noting: in addition to the acoustic piano she always plays on her recordings, she augments it on the new set with Fender Rhodes, organ, and synthesizer.
While the album title might seem despairing, the music and performances assuredly aren’t. If anything, the spirit of the performances suggests the 2020 sessions were cause for celebration, even if reservedly felt, when the musicians were able to assemble and create music together again. Like Better Than Gold and Silver, the tracks on the new release see Eckemoff again setting verses from Biblical Psalms to music; in contrast to the earlier release, which presented ten settings in vocal and instrumental versions, I Am a Stranger in This World is an all-instrumental affair, though each composition’s melodies originated from the words in the Psalms.
For every project, she gathers around herself a small number of musicians who then wholly share their artistry with her for two or three days. A community feel informs the music, as if to suggest a family of sorts formed during the brief time of the project’s creation. Always in charge, Eckemoff embroiders the performances with filigreed piano patterns and occasionally steps forth to solo; Alessi might be the MVP here, however, given how often his acrobatic horn leads the ensemble with authority (hear the dynamic turn he takes in “Make Haste to Help Me,” for example). The ever-imaginative Rogers is no slouch in the soloing department either, and Gress and Waits take to her music like ducks to water, the two solidly grounding the performances yet also playing freely in the space the compositions provide. She excels at structuring her writing so that each piece is branded with a distinctive character yet also allows ample room for the musicians to individually stamp themselves on the performance.
Opening on a high, “As Chaff Before the Wind” alternates between serene, lightly swinging, and majestic episodes, with the assured voicings of Alessi gradually giving way to a lyrical statement by Rogers. While many a performance is delivered at a relaxed tempo, “Keep Not Your Silence” ups the intensity ante with a muted Alessi, chiming Rogers, and organ-wielding Eckemoff driving the band. The presence of Howes’ violin separates the title track from those preceding it, as does the stately classical tone of the musicians’ execution. Similarly, the tinkle of Fender Rhodes adds to the romantic splendour of “Truth in His Heart.” To a greater degree than on her other releases, a pronounced blues feeling informs a number of pieces, including “Lighten My Eyes” and the rollicking “I Shall Not Want,” and some performances exude a freer feel than the Eckemoff norm (see the extended central section in “At Midnight I Will Rise”).
“Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass” and “Every Beast of the Field” stretch out to sixteen and nineteen minutes, respectively, and it’s in these performances—both by the 2016 unit—where the impression of adventurous journeys methodically undertaken by travelers is conspicuously felt. Despite their extended duration, the pieces never drag when the compositions continually advance from one passage to another. With Eckemoff adding synthesizer atmosphere, Howes, Alessi, and Monder confidently guide the group through the episodic trek “Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass”; Howes and Alessi do much the same by co-leading the group through the many peaks and valleys of “Every Beast of the Field.”
Some thoughts by Gress about playing Eckemoff’s music are included in the release booklet, and they’re astute in pinpointing some of what makes her so special. “Yelena,” he says, “follows her own muse and seems to be uninfluenced by current trends in the music scene writ large … That the music she makes reflects her true self was, and is, inevitable.” He’s correct on all counts: there’s nothing calculatedly contrarian about Eckemoff’s nature, yet there’s no disputing her music is always marked by her distinctive sensibility. Her piano playing style likewise exemplifies her personality in the way jazz expression is always grounded in the classical training she received before embarking on her career as a jazz artist.