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YELENA ECKEMOFF EXTENDS THE SCOPE OF AN AMBITIOUS PERSONAL PROJECT WITH “I AM A STRANGER IN THIS WORLD,” TO BE RELEASED MAY 20 BY L&H PRODUCTION PIANIST-COMPOSER CONTINUES HER MUSICAL SETTINGS OF BIBLICAL PSALMS WITH A CRACK ENSEMBLE INCLUDING RALPH ALESSI, DREW GRESS, ADAM ROGERS, AND NASHEET WAITS,PLUS SPECIAL GUESTS
Pianist-composer Yelena Eckemoff adds to her already impressive corpus of settings for the Psalms on I Am a Stranger in This World, due for a May 20 release on her own L&H Production label. The album is a new installment in a long-term musical project that began with 2018’s Better Than Gold and Silver, and once again teams Eckemoff with that album’s trumpeter Ralph Alessi and bassist Drew Gress, along with guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nasheet Waits. (Violinist Christian Howes—with Ben Monder and Joey Baron also in lieu of Rogers and Waits, respectively—also appears on three holdover tracks from Better Than Gold and Silver.)
Eckemoff converted to Christianity while still living in her native Moscow during the waning days of the Soviet Union: a time when to be Christian was still a dangerous transgression. Her new faith, along with a hard-to-procure King James Bible, combined with her pedigree in classical and jazz piano to inspire a celebration of the Old Testament’s wisdom and poetry.
Eckemoff, however, finds more than just inspiration in the Psalms. “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 says. “And I think it’s because there’s a power in those words…. You can feel the power that God channels through that music.”
Of course, the musicians working with Eckemoff channel power of their own. I Am a Stranger in This World was recorded during the 2020 pandemic, and there’s a palpable passion from Alessi, Gress, Rogers, and Waits simply to be making music again. But that alone doesn’t account for the tenderness of Rogers’s lines on “As Chaff Before the Wind” (a setting of Psalm 35), the soul in Alessi’s soft fills on “I Shall Not Want” (from the famous Psalm 23), or the full band chemistry of “Keep Not Your Silence” (Psalm 83).
“Eckemoff’s new Psalms settings display an expanded stylistic range,” writes CD annotator Mark Sullivan. “Who knew that Psalms could sound like blues? ‘I Shall Not Want’ embraces the vibrant blues feeling [as does] ‘Lighten My Eyes.’ . . . Here for the first time on her jazz recordings her keyboards are expanded beyond acoustic piano to include organ on ‘Keep Not Your Silence,’ Fender Rhodes electric piano on ‘Truth in His Heart’ and ‘The Wine of Astonishment,’ as well as some synthesizers on ‘At Midnight I Will Rise’ and ‘Like Rain Upon the Mown Grass,’ subtly broadening the group’s timbral palette.”
Although Eckemoff first wrote these settings as vocal features, there are no singers on I Am a Stranger in This World. Instead, she offers her purely instrumental interpretations of the Psalms, titling each with a line from the appropriate Biblical verse and citing each Psalm for the listener to read and draw connections to the music—and perhaps to their own ideas about faith in a higher power.
Eckemoff is no evangelist, but her work with the Psalms does offer an important message to the world. “There is some higher power,” she says. “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.”
Yelena Eckemoff was born in Moscow, where she started playing by ear and composing music when she was four. She would go on to study classical piano the most prestigious music academies in Russia: the Gnessins School for musically gifted children, followed by the Moscow State Conservatory.
Gradually, however, Eckemoff’s ears wandered beyond her classical training, discovering first rock, then jazz. When she saw Dave Brubeck’s performance in Moscow in 1987, she settled on jazz as her permanent musical path.
That path turned out to run through the United States, where Eckemoff immigrated in 1991 and settled in North Carolina. Now ensconced in the country that gave birth to jazz, she went in search of players who could do justice to her intricate ideas.
The search was a long and sometimes frustrating one, but it paid off when she was able to work with the likes of bassist Mads Vinding and drummer Peter Erskine on her 2010 album Cold Sun. Later collaborators have included Mark Turner, Joe Locke, George Mraz, Peter Erskine, Manu Katché, Billy Hart, Chris Potter, Jon Christensen, and Joey Baron, along with Alessi, Gress, Rogers, and Waits. Her unique, sophisticated, and highly expressive music continues to draw support and creative energy from the finest musicians in the world.