Nearer to God
Yelena Eckemoff spins modern jazz spirituals from Bible’s ‘Book of Psalms’

Christians practice the study of the Bible, Daily Devotions, to feel closer to God. Yelena Eckemoff’s new album, Better Than Gold and Silver Word-by-Word settings of the Biblical Psalms, does it with music.

Inspired by the “most authentic sacred text” from the Book of Psalms (King James Version), and her own conversion to Christianity, Eckemoff set forth on a songwriting odyssey, recording her own religious music for vocals (Disk 1) and instrumentals (Disk 2) in a personal project, years in the making.

Toward that end, she enlisted a heavenly host of vocalists and instrumentalists for the two-disk album devoted to the Word of God through jazz and classical styles.

Tenor Tomás Cruz and Mezzo Soprano Kim Mayo lyricize 10 selections from “Psalms” for the first disk. The selections (“Psalm 131, 119 Teth, 119 Nun, 110, 119 Lamed, 126, 58, 119 Jod, 119 Zain, and 147”) make an extended, return engagement in the second disk for instrumentals.

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi, violinist Christian Howes, drummer Joey Baron, double-bassist Drew Gress, and electric guitarist Ben Monder join the Russian pianist composer for the modern jazz worship session throughout.

Musical themes from each “Psalm” do their own special kind of dance through an orchestral movement, leaving glittering, solemn moments for the individual listener to grab and hold onto.

Eckemoff has performed her “Psalms” in plenty of churches and concerts in the past. A Minnesota church choir even performed them in its services.

Eckemoff’s musical settings of “Psalms” feel like mini-Daily Devotions, full of restorative quality and joyful feeling — once you get to know them. However, her “Psalms” are also as dense, complex, and sometimes hard to grasp as the Christian Scriptures.

Hence, the vocal section is a lot harder to warm up to than the instrumental, simply because of the operatic nature of the singing and the sedate material — Bible verses, taken straight from the source, eons of formal training. The voices themselves are exceptional…again, if you’re into opera with your gospel.

The vocals in track eight, “Psalm 119 Jod” — a hefty seven minutes-plus — go on forever, driving home the church vibe. No fancy bells or whistles. Not enough musical movement to break up the solemn homily; it’s a pared-down hymnal ballet true to the spirit of worship back in the day, however beautifully, artfully rendered.

The overarching vibe of Disk 1 feels like church, not always in a good way. At some point, the listener — especially a recovering Catholic like myself — is bound to get restless.

But there are moments…

In “Psalm 110,” Disk 1, Alessi, Monder, and Howes step in to lift spirits with fluid, floral solos, the trumpet’s compassionate narrative, Monder’s flickering string-play in full rejoice, Howes’ dramatic reach. Mayo adds her own uniquely human voice, bending to the Scriptural will with a poetically vulnerable response.

That’s enough to make you look up from your hymnal.

The instrumental side of the Sept. 21, 2018 release clearly outshines the vocals. There’s more for the musicians to do. The tracks themselves are longer, for more fascinating embellishments in the solos.

I found more expression, meaning, controlled chaos and spacious conviction…on Disk 2, Eckemoff’s driving force — the case for grace — and Alessi’s trumpeting confessional, a repentant sinner’s faltering, searching staccato, as in “Psalm 119 Jod.”

Eckemoff’s instrumental “Psalms” say what words cannot.

Her voiceless music goes from airy and ethereal (“Psalm 147”) — a real classical music lover’s dream — to voluptuously gothic (“Psalm 126”), to daring bebop jazz, spotlighting Eckemoff doing her thing on the swanky gospel track, “Psalm 58” — a gem in the rough.

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi very nearly steals the worship out from under the rest of the band. His solo carries the first instrumental track, a devotion to “Psalm 131,” into and out of heartbreak — the living embodiment of ascension and rebirth, in fine jazz form: “Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me…”

Although, Eckemoff gives as good as she gets. She shines in the second instrumental, a lengthy combustion of dark and light from “Psalm 119 Teth,” giving life to the verse: “The law of Your mouth is better to me | Than thousands of coins of gold and silver.”

Better Than Gold and Silver (L & H Production) plays with a sense of leisure and splendor that’s in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of today’s catchy-catch-all, groove-obsessed society.

The ballads do require a contemplative spirit. Much of the voicings of the first disk mirrors the trance-inducing nature of the Bible, lost and locked in supine bliss…if you wait on the Lord long enough.

In a way, the album mirrors Daily Devotions, providing a suitable Christian soundtrack for believers who need more than Bible verses to get them through the day.

“My Psalms project started long before our emigration to the United States, when we still lived in Moscow and I’d just had my third child.” Eckemoff explained in her liner notes. “The Soviet Union’s ideology had begun to crumble down, leaving spiritual vacuum in its place and many hungry for something to fill this void.”

Visits to a “semi-underground” Moscow Baptist church, the only one in the area, led to a major shift in Eckemoff’s consciousness. Atheists no longer, she and her husband became baptized in the faith.

She remembered the church choir, the pipe organ, the huge congregation, and their amazing music. “The singing of the congregation, nearly a thousand people, impressed me most deeply; I often felt the surge of goosebumps running down my spine and almost lifting me off my feet,” she continued.

Soon, she would be moved by the church and the kindness of fellow Christians to make a literal move — from Russia to North Carolina — and to compose pieces from nearly the entire book of Psalms (KJV).

“And I was composing almost one Psalm each day. I would open the Book of Psalms on a random page and write down the music I heard behind its words. I’d work on that Psalm for a while, go back to it later in a day or so and then file it away for future consideration. Quite a few of the settings I sequenced in my virtual MIDI ‘orchestra.’ During these several years, isolated from the rest of the musical world, I touched almost all 150 Psalms in one way or another. Serving as a church musician for over two decades, I have performed several of them in various choirs.”