Yelena Eckemoff ‘Better Than Gold And Silver’ 2CD (L&H Production) 4/5

If you truly wish to explore the spiritual roots of jazz, then this independent release on a small label is well worth investigating. Russian emigré composer and pianist Yelena Eckemoff went to considerable trouble and indeed personal anguish in her life, separated for a while from her children, before the family were finally reunited in the United States. Her conversion to the Baptist church during the end of the Soviet union gave her a new purpose in life and, as a professional musician, she wished to reflect that new religious identity in her creative work.

On this recording, and not her first, divided into two separate yet closely related parts on each CD, we hear the vocal and instrumental representations of the same compositions recorded at St. Peter’s church in Manhattan. She has surrounded herself with some of the top jazz musicians in New York, several of whom regularly record for the ECM label, and these include Joey Baron on drums, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ben Moder on electric guitar, Drew Gress on double bass and Tomás Cruz on vocals, with the violin of Christian Howes and on the first CD only the mezzo soprano vocals of Kim Mayo. To these ears, the vocal interpretations are closer to classical music than jazz, but they are still worth listening to in comparison to the jazz instrumentals. As a whole, all the music has been inspired by the psalms of the second King James bible, but you need not have any interest in or knowledge of the contents of that book in order to appreciate the music which can be listened to on its own terms. The music works best when taken at medium tempo with several instruments in conversation with one another, as illustrated on, ‘Psalm 58’, which starts off with a guitar intro and then acquires a head of steam with trumpet and guitar engaging in a modern-day cutting edge contest. A laid back blues feel permeates, ‘Psalm 119 Lawed’, with the bass lines of Gress betraying a strong influence of J.S. Bach, while further classical hues are manifest on, Psalm 119 Nun’, with a delicate duet between piano and violin. Above all else, it is the reposing tranquility and calming re-assurance of the music that the listener will warm to as both a deeply soothing and healing experience. Quite possibly, a greater variation of tempo would have enhanced proceedings here. Ideally, one would like to hear this formation in a live context, in a suitably spiritual surrounding such as a church. With so many new releases coming out and often going under the radar, it would be a crying shame if this excellent effort went undetected. It just makes it into the best new recording list of the year and deservedly so.

Tim Stenhouse