Title: Book of Psalms: Intimate Prayer Set to Wondrous, Mystical, Righteous Music
Let the trumpet sound and the stringed instruments make merry for pianist Yelena Eckemoff’s ‘I Am a Stranger in This World’
“I am a stranger on earth;
do not hide your commands from me.”
Classically trained Russian pianist Yelena Eckemoff fits more musical styles into one place than most jazz artists. She also hears music in the most unlikely places: a pane of glass, a lioness feeding her cubs, the bud of a wildflower in the throes of early spring, and, in her latest two-disc album, I Am a Stranger in This World, musical Scripture from the “Book of Psalms” in the “Old Testament.”
I Am a Stranger in This World (L&H Production) revisits her 2018 instrumental/vocal recording, Better Than Gold and Silver, with a continuation of three flow-over tracks, as well as new pieces just for the occasion.
The May 20, 2022 double-album on her own label features 10 instrumentals from two recording sessions: 2016 in Brooklyn for Better Than Gold and Silver and 2020 in NYC for I Am a Stranger in This World. Three recorded tracks from the 2016 session, including two of the longest (“Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass” and “Every Beast of the Field”), are previously unreleased flow-overs from her 2018 record. The title track is the third.
“I may only add that these three flow-over tracks were also recorded with vocals (Tomas Cruz,) while eight [additional] new tracks have not found the proper singer(s) yet, even though the scores for vocal versions are ready,” Eckemoff explained. “I plan to release three psalms with Cruz later on digitally — as singles. The leftover ‘I Am a Stranger in This World’ psalm was a perfect name for the new installment, so I gladly used it.”
On her current release, trumpet and guitar take over a great many melodic landscapes — in broad, expansive swaths, while also hiding, tucked away in burgeoning compartments, waiting to fly out, messianic messages burying the lead, both cinematic in scope and ridiculously, jaw-droppingly diverse…classically elegant against rim-riot abstract — the essence of free jazz — over continually changing movements and tones, and starkly re-shifting styles..
“I am a melodist, but the melodies that come from the words I hear in the Psalms, I think they are the best melodies I create,” she expressed in a press release. “And I think it’s because there’s a power in those words…. You can feel the power that God channels through that music.”
Rhapsodic waves, verging on opera, vibratory resonance, and instrumental multiplicity characterize I Am a Stranger in This World, connecting the mystical, enigmatic strangeness of Old Testament religion with down-to-earth familiarity, melded and forged into everyday music we might turn up on the radio or tune into at a symphony concert with friends.
It is Michelangelo’s Italian Renaissance painting, “Creation of Adam” — where the Almighty reaches out to touch humankind’s hand — come to musical life in another mortal’s hands. Divinity gleaned…realized in windsong.
This album benefits from the many trumpet voices in one musician, Ralph Alessi, and his ability to embody myriad states of being and feeling, from highs and lows to squalls in between, two metallurgy-minded electric guitarists (Adam Rogers, Ben Monder), and their varying, dynamic points of view, the innate mimicry-soundtrack of drummers and their second skin (Nasheet Waits, Joey Baron), and violinist Christian Howes’ gospel-to-rock totem majesty every repeat offender can get behind.
One moment, wild and woolly, pop-rock fancy…1960s “Hair” and “Tommy,” ushered into a modern-era sophistication, buttressed up against the faintest whiff of charismatic Baptist gospel. The next, a Haydn, Mozart ballet of sweetness and light, plié-ing and pirouetting around a linen-starched musical theme that enfolds, arches, and repeats reverently around a series of hymnal-reborn inspiration.
Rather than list the tracks by arm’s-length citation, i.e. “Open your Bibles to ‘Psalm 119:19,’” Eckemoff personally draws on the intrigue of specific, convicting verses for her instrumental settings.
The songs themselves run long, between six and 18 minutes, as is her all-encompassing nature.
In disc one:
The musical undercurrent driving the first track, “As Chaff Before the Wind” (Psalm 35), imitates literal wheat stalks blowing in the wind, hither and yon, as the bandleader pianist holds down the quizzical, dramatic melody that spins around in tiny swirling rivulets.
One by one, the translucent, innocent bud of first breath or consciousness — an almost smooth-jazz-like prism with which life is seen, experienced, and understood — becomes shaped and augmented by ringlet amulets of stronger and stronger voices encapsulated on jazz trumpet (Alessi) and bass (Gress), then rock-star guitar (Rogers), backed by scintillating drum crashes (Waits) in the distance.
The slinky, bluesy piano notes of a late-night jazz seduction in “Lighten My Eyes” (Psalm 13) seem almost incongruous, considering the source. But if you consider the deeply sacred, intimate love note that is “Psalms,” at once beseeching, yearning, desperate, and all-consuming in focus throughout — as in one believer to his G-d — you’d get the drift.
“Make Haste to Help Me” (Psalm 70) repeats off a distinctive, simple blues riff ages ago. Eckemoff complicates matters, harmonically going this way and that, without straying that far off. Alessi lifts, separates, and illuminates that long, dark night of the soul with snazzy, zig-zag difference, as Rogers flickers beatnik daydreams, Waits splashes in the deep end, and Gress furtively makes off with the silvery spoils. The riff may be recognizable, but what the band individually does with the pieces claimed for themselves is something else.
It’s as close to traditional blues/jazz as Eckemoff’s ever gotten.
The title track (Psalm 119 Gimel) has classical chamber music all over it, trembly and true, as if approaching the altar with nothing but rags, faith, hope, and love. That’s all Christian Howes, playing his broken heart on his violin, playing it whole again. Eckemoff slips into a little bass-bottom, along with her evocative pianoforte cues, leading the prodigal son home again.
“Truth in His Heart” (Psalm 15) falls like rain on desert fields — Eckemoff’s piano turning into synth, followed vibrantly by Rogers pulling electrified strings, taunting the skies to upturn. Alessi cradles a loosening spirit on horns, allowing notes to sink, waiver, and drop like stones, heavy and war-torn.
The most beautifully rendered piece of art rests in the triple combo of trumpet, piano, and guitar coursing through “Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass” (Psalm 72). In tandem, the musicians seek to groove out the poetry and the rewards of waiting on the Lord, opening up worlds within worlds, when flesh is conquered and spirit glows. The trumpet melody buries itself on downward, bended knee, as once again, Howes reminds us what salvation feels like, as his bowed passage embodies the crackling force of humility and enlightenment.
If you know Howes’ personal story of salvation, you’ll appreciate his human touches all the more.
Disc 2 morphs into the esoteric and unfathomable:
“Keep Not Your Silence” (Psalm 83) bounces around like a projected red ball going over a particular brand of Scripture — at first light, in the first meeting of the minds of a self-help group or Youth for Christ rally — as the Word, the Bread of Life feeds another broken soul, and rote grows into internal, imaginative dialogue… One can easily picture a parishioner sitting in the back of the pew, called to come forward, and the succinct-to-chaotic war battling furiously in his head in Eckemoff’s prancing piano beats and Alessi’s softly punctuated aerials.
Absent religious context, “The Wine of Astonishment” (Psalm 60) could very well be from the next ruminative rock album, with Eckemoff sweetening the mood and Alessi trying to find meaning in between the curling, topsy-turvy notes of a lost arc of a tune, buried in the trenches…before everything seems to go awry, slipping away into madness, then nothing.
The music returns out of the blackness and the disarray, trumpet sounding strong and surer than ever, faith restored, the absence of G-d filled with an outpouring, closer to unified, resounding, as Eckemoff’s piano outreach splits the cosmic-fantastic in starry-starry-night twinkles.
This one was the hardest to get into, with so much going on, and this tiny kernel of a melody, guitar on top of trumpet on top of piano — stretched across 12 minutes and seven seconds of ideas and moods — seeking shelter, refuge…escape.
Although, Eckemoff provides a bit of resplendent jazz in a fruitful solo halfway in, and Adam Rogers absolutely slays, cycling his electronic fissure of a guitar into a filtering device for every poignant memory for every lifetime; the equivalent of that brilliant “Greatest Hits” flash medley before the lights go out.
“I Shall Not Want” (Psalm 23) is a lazy-river, blues-drenched Sunday afternoon, after church service, laying around in the backyard with family and friends, enjoying the view and each other, over a tasty repast. Guitar flecks gleaning pictures of sunsets through maple trees, birds circling overhead. Decidedly in the hot, humid warmth of the South…before co-mingling with a slower ballad, piecemealed by Alessi on trumpet, stringing several styles of play together.
If any tune deserves vocals and a front pew, it’s “At Midnight I Will Rise” (Psalm 119 Cheth). Eckemoff leaves plenty of room for a thoughtful, roaming intro, and a vocalization of the highs and lows of a believer sorting through the debris of forsaken temptation. In the middle of the roaming, the pianist inserts four familiar chords of Beethoven’s 5th. The familiar disintegrates into three or four varying trains of thought on a parallel course toward destiny…trumpet snip-snip-snipping away, agitating drums and piano, guitar making concentrated spiral descents.
Three-fourths of the way in, “At Midnight…” slips into a frilly canopy bed, silk taffeta debutante ball, and a young girl’s candy-coated music box, the one with the twirling pink ballerina inside, lulling you to sleep.
“Every Beast of the Field” (Psalm 104) wants to break into a generational anthem, one we’ve heard before. But Eckemoff drops the melodic participles before they become a cover, lasso’ing instrumental divergence in a loosely fitting circular motion around multiple styles and silhouettes — R&B bluegrass, gritty Southern rock, a military march, post-Baroque British period pieces.
Yelena Eckemoff converted to Christianity before emigrating to the U.S. from Moscow during tumultuous political times. This is her prayer and her worship, which she gladly shares with listeners of all faiths.
Much like the Bible itself, I Am a Stranger in This World | Original settings of Biblical Psalms, instrumental version, takes some time and getting used to, as well as frequent run-throughs. She and her able, willing band present the “Book of Psalms” with a strong, confident sense of melody, loose, open sense of time, and a willingness to let it all go to serve a stirring, oftentimes, haywire mood.
“There is some higher power. Even the people who don’t believe in God, but have faith in government or in society or humanity — well, the government or society or humanity is the higher power. Something greater than themselves. My message is that people can overcome fears and insecurities, and trust in a higher power.”