Keith Black for Winnipeg Free Press
Spirituality expressed in jazz is nothing new. From the Coltranes to Brubeck, Ellington, Charles Lloyd and many others, jazz folks have used their musicality to share their deepest spiritual feelings.
Yelena Eckemoff is a classically trained pianist who converted to Christianity in her native Russia and brought her love of jazz and her faith to the United States some years ago. Since moving to the States she has carved out a powerful career as pianist and composer in various configurations. A strong undercurrent has been to write compositions perhaps more and more regularly that reflect her fascination with the Psalms.
I Am a Stranger in This World is a two-CD release that continues that project. With a stellar cast of trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist Drew Gress, guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nasheet Waits , it adds violinist Christian Howes, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Joey Baron on some tracks. Each track references a specific Psalm, with a wide range of moods and styles. Several tracks are straight-up blues, or complex with quite edgy dissonances.
The tunes are excellent; Eckemoff says her melodies that come from the words of the Psalms “are the best melodies I create.” The opening track, As Chaff Before the Wind (Ps. 35) is 12 minutes of laying the groundwork for the album. There is intensity and beauty in much of this music, and if one didn’t know the concept, the music would stand on its own solidly in the contemporary jazz groove. I Shall Not Want (Ps. 23) is a great blues number, while Keep Not Your Silence (Ps. 83) has exceptional solos by Alessi and Rogers. Wine of Assessment (Ps. 60) moves into very edgy moments, as do a number of other tracks, always with control and meaning.
While the concept might be a major turnoff for some, this is fine jazz at both the spiritual and “secular” level. Highly recommended. ★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THESE: I Am a Stranger in This World (Ps. 119 Gimel), I Shall Not Want