The prolific Russian-born, North Carolina-based pianist/composer Yelena Eckemoff adds a sacred dimension to the ambitious series of concept albums in her extensive catalogue her new 2-CD set Better Than Gold and Silver. It’s the first in a projected series of recordings featuring Eckemoff’s settings of Biblical psalms. The new album includes both vocal and instrumental versions of 10 songs she conceived as works of modern jazz rather than part of the Christian music canon. While the album’s lyrics — beautifully sung by tenor Tomás Cruz and mezzo-soprano Kim Mayo — are word-for-word verses from the King James Bible (the album’s title is based on verse 72 from Psalm 119: “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver”), Eckemoff explains in her liner notes that the music is what she “heard behind the words.”
What she heard and composed is highly melodic, multilayered, intricately structured jazz that takes full advantage not only of her virtuoso pianism, but also of the distinctive talents of the all-star team of instrumentalists she enlisted for the project: trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, violinist Christian Howes, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Joey Baron.
The genesis of Eckemoff’s interest in composing jazz settings for sacred texts dates back to her time in her native Moscow, where she and her husband were searching for something to fill the spiritual void around them. They found it in the hymns and religious songs of the city’s only Baptist church and its choir and pipe organ; soon, these former atheists were drawn into Christianity and baptized. Looking for texts with which she could musically commune with her newfound faith, Eckemoff turned to the psalms in a Russian bible, but had trouble understanding its Old Slavonic language. She searched in vain for an English bible in a country that banned religious texts.
Eventually an American missionary she’d written to sent her a Bible adapted for people speaking English as a second language. Years later, having overcome overwhelming odds and emigrated to the U.S., Eckemoff was informed by a minister in her North Carolina hometown that she had been using the wrong version of the Bible. She discovered the King James version was indeed deeper, richer, and more poetic, and its psalms inspired this, her first collection of sacred texts in jazz settings.
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