By Shaun Brady A restless artistic nature keeps Rachel Eckroth on the move, even as…
By Shaun Brady
A restless artistic nature keeps Rachel Eckroth on the move, even as she finds her way back to acoustic jazz expression.
Opened in late 2017, the Los Angeles jazz club Sam First touts itself as being only a few minutes’ walk from the terminals at LAX. As a gathering place for the peripatetic, it’s an apt locale for Humanoid, the first live album from the pianist (and at other times, vocalist and keyboardist) Rachel Eckroth.
Though far from a tourist in the jazz world, Eckroth has remained a stylistic nomad since the release of her 2005 debut, Mind, a fairly straightahead piano trio outing. Subsequent releases have ranged from Norah Jones-style torch songs to dark-toned, synth-laden art rock to the Grammy-nominated modern fusion effort The Garden, which draws on the post-jazz gifts of her husband, bassist-producer Tim Lefebvre, and his partner in David Bowie’s Blackstar band, saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
All of which is to say that Eckroth tends to veer in new directions with each project. Reached by phone in Switzerland, where she was performing in a festival and mentoring local artists, the Phoenix native admits, “I have a lot of interests and I try a lot of things. I fought against myself for a while, but eventually I had to give in. I’m just going to go wherever the wind takes me.”
Lately those winds have blown her back toward the acoustic piano, which she explored alone on the introspective solo outing One and most recently on Humanoid, with a new quartet featuring guitarist Andrew Renfroe, bassist Billy Mohler and drummer Tina Raymond. The latter recording captures a pair of October 2022 gigs at Sam First, and was released on the venue’s own label. The album’s title references Eckroth’s turning away from the synthetic and electronic after years of focusing on her collection of plugged-in instruments.
In part, Eckroth’s choice of instrumentation has been fueled by her experiences in the pop world. Her Switzerland trip followed quickly on the heels of a tour with the adventurous singer-songwriter St. Vincent, opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She’s also toured and recorded with KT Tunstall, Rufus Wainwright and Phish bassist Mike Gordon, and spent two years in the house band for The Meredith Vieira Show. “I’ve always been the girl that plays the synths and sings,” she says, “which is kind of a hot commodity sometimes.”
The songs on Humanoid bear traces of her other lives. The title track, which opens the set, is built on a slinky melody played in unison by Eckroth and Synowiec, giving it a sleek feel that wouldn’t feel out of place on an electric keyboard. Yet the pianist explores the tune with an organic sense of swing that Raymond seizes onto with a spacious beat, its arc as wide as a pendulum’s. The drummer lays a more tumultuous foundation for Eckroth’s “Mind,” which uses Mohler’s burly bass line as a spine for sharp parrying thrusts between Raymond and the composer.
Two pieces are reprised from The Garden, evidence of the adaptability of Eckroth’s compositions: “Under a Fig Tree” thrives on a skulking, tenuously exploratory feel, while “Vines” closes the set at a breakneck pace, the tone set by Eckroth’s serrated, dissonance-courting solo intro. Similarly, Mohler’s resonant bass kicks his own steely “Evolution” into gear. The remainder of the set is made up of a diverse set of covers: Carla Bley’s “Lawns” is taken at a languorous, wistful pace, Bill Frisell’s “Strange Meeting” with a dream-like, floating atmosphere. Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine,” a holdover from a recent tribute to the iconic composer’s uncharacteristic classic Money Jungle, features a knotty, West African-inflected solo turn by Synowiec and a vigorous feel from the quartet.
Speaking days before the album’s official release, Eckroth was already moving on to her next horizon. She’d been working on compositions for nonet and big band arrangements and was finding herself newly inspired by the younger Swiss players under her tutelage. “We just heard a piano trio that was very Keith Jarrett-esque,” she muses, “and I was thinking, ‘Oh, that would be a cool vibe to go for at some point.’ Then, last night, there was a crazy ‘out’ band with a singer that plays bass, and I was getting inspired by all the things they were doing. I guess it’s always going to be something different with me.”
Featured photo by Anna Webber.