Russian-born pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff began setting verses from the Bible’s Book of Psalms shortly after her conversion to Catholicism, even before her emigration to the United States. But she waited until she had considerable experience working with jazz musicians before attempting these jazz arrangements. The first disc in this double disc set presents settings with two vocalists, tenor Tomas Cruzand mezzo-soprano Kim Mayo, accompanied by a remarkable band: trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, violinist Christian Howes, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron (plus the composer on piano). The second disc is devoted to instrumental versions, with soloists taking the vocal lines.
The album title is a paraphrase of a line in Psalm 119, the longest psalm set here. The full text includes 22 verses, one for each letter in the Hebrew alphabet: the five verses Eckemoff set form half of the album’s ten tracks. But it is Cruz’s sweet tenor singing “Psalm 131” that opens the set with a ballad feel, supported by Howes’ violin obbligato and sensitive guitar, violin and trumpet solos. Mayo’s clear mezzo soprano gets support from Alessi’s trumpet obbligato on “Psalm 119 Teth,” the first of the Psalm 119 settings.
Eckemoff’s jazz compositions have always been notable for their through-composed qualities. They rarely follow the conventional head-solos-head structure of jazz performance, employing sectional structures that are unique to each piece. That quality is even more pronounced here, as she sets the Psalms word-for-word: the music adapts to the rhythm of the words, not the other way around. Recognizing that there needs to be space for improvisation, sometimes there is a contrasting section devoted to soloists, for example the Latin feel that emerges during the middle of “Psalm 110.” There is still space for swing, as in “Psalm 119 Lamed,” where the same gentle swing groove supports vocals from both Mayo and Cruz, as well as trumpet and piano solos. Closer “Psalm 147” (the longest track by far at over twelve minutes) includes instrumental interludes between the sung verses, music that elaborates upon the accompaniment patterns.
The instrumental disk presents the same songs in the same order, with instruments carrying the vocal lines, and with different, more open solos. The instrumental versions are not dramatically different—not least because they were recorded in the same sessions as the vocal ones, with the vocals added later—but they do prove that Eckemoff’s compositions can stand up quite well without the words. The first couple of vocal parts fall to Alessi’s trumpet, a warm expressive voice. Then Howes’ violin takes the next two, a comfortable choice for what are essentially art songs. The two alternate the vocal role for most of the set, but bassist Gress expands his introduction to “Psalm 126” on the vocal disk into a full-throated statement of the theme. The end instrumental section of “Psalm 119 Jod” builds into a free section, ranging more widely than the vocal version had.
Eckemoff rightly considers this music to be modern jazz, not liturgical music. It takes its place alongside Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts (Prestige Records, 1968) and Steve Reich’s Tehillim (ECM New Series, 2000) (which presents his minimalist interpretation of the psalms). It also represents yet another new color in the rainbow of her recording projects, each different from the last.