Sunday, November 19, 2023

Pianist Rachel Ekroth and her Quartet live at LA's Sam First Jazz Club

Rachel Ekroth Humanoid Live at Sam First's 

Pianist/vocalist/composer Rachel Ekroth released her latest album Humanoid this year. It is an impressive 'live' capture of Ekroth's group's two-night performance at Los Angeles' jazz club Sam First's in Oct of 2022. The music is performed with professionalism and sincerity and there is a palpable appreciation from the audience that recognizes they are listening to a group that meshes well and enjoys making music together.  

My first exposure to Ekroth was in 2022 when she released a fresh, electronically augmented, and creatively different album titled The Garden with saxophonist Donnie McCaslin, bassist Tim Lefebre,  Christian Euman on drums, Andrew Krasilnikov on soprano sax, Austin White on modular synth, and Nir Felder on guitar. It featured Ekroth on piano and an array of electronic keyboards playing a contemporary mix of artistically conceived soundscapes; sonic explorations that follow Ekroth's imaginations. Although heard sparingly, Ekroth also adds her own hypnotic, Portishead-like, trip-hop vocal to boot. I chose the album as one of the year's best and it was rightly nominated for a Grammy in the contemporary instrumental category.

On Humanoid  Ekroth has chosen to leave both her voice and the electronics behind this time and concentrate on a more acoustic, distinctively modern jazz-oriented approach to express her musical ideas at her LA  gig. 

There are definitely jazz strands in this woman's DNA. Ekroth plays piano here with her well-matched bandmates Andrew Renfroe on guitar, Billy Mohler on bass, and Tina Raymond on drums. The musical selections include four Ekroth compositions, two of which "Vines" and "Under a Fig" are reprised from The Garden.  The other songs include Duke Ellington's "Fleurette Africaine," Bill Frisell's "Strange Meeting," bandmate Billy Mohler's "Evolution," and my favorite Carla Bley's "Lawns." The two new Ekroth offerings from this live recording are "Mind"  and the title cut "Humanoid."

"Humanoid" starts with a jaunty bass line by Mohler, augmented by Raymond's cadenced drums and some synchronous lines nicely matched by Renfroe and Ekroth in unison. It then expands into some airy guitar lines that show Renfroe's silky, echoed explorations in all their splendor. Ekroth's piano takes center stage as she shows an intuitive sense of direction with her improvisational expansions. Her playing is not linear but includes jaunts and turns, small atonal lines that seem to be off course before they are magically melded into logical conclusions. 

The band again exquisitely employs synchronous playing to lay out the opening lines of "Mind." Mohler's bass line has a staccato feel to it and the syncopated groove gives Ekroth the background upon which to improvise. Raymond thoughtfully adds well-placed percussive embellishments that keep the sustained pulse from being repetitive.

It was certainly a timely choice to include Carla Bley's memorable composition "Lawns." "Bley's music and career have been an inspiration to any aspiring composer like Ekroth and it shows here. The sauntering feel of this contemplative jewel is captured so well by the band. Renfroe's guitar solos first and in his succinct, uncluttered approach emanates the inclusive, joyous feel that the song evokes. Ekroth's piano follows and her emotive improvisation produces a cascading set of descending lines that wrap you up like a blanket of warmth and joy.

"Under A Fig Tree" has a repeating opening line that is laid down by Mohler and Ekroth before Renfroe's probing guitar produces an eerie melodic statement. There is a cinematic feel to this one. Ekroth and Renfroe play off each other in a more free-formed exchange that grows in ever-increasing intensity.  Mohler's bass maintains a pulse and Raymond's drum work adds impressionistic accents to the mix. The return to the eerie melodic statement serves almost as a coda to a soundtrack from a macabre Hitchcock film.

The inclusion of the less-known Ellington compositions like "Fleurette Africaine" is a statement of confidence from Ekroth. Ellington first released it in his 1962 album Money Jungle.  Besides reverence for the history of the music, it also shows a spirit of adventure for tackling this in her own way. Mohler's bass lays down a throbbing line as Ekroth pianistically searches through the possibilities of expression about this Flower of Africa-themed ode. This is certainly a fit and effective tribute to the master, Ellington.

"Evolution" opens with a Fleet, burnished bass intro by Mohler that resonates with a woody warmth before he creates an ostinato line that sets up the group. Ekroth's piano attack is darting, stabbing, and percussive. Renfroe sits this one out, but Raymond offers an explosive solo that percolates.

Bill Frisell's "Strange Meeting" is originally from his 1985 album Rambler, although he has reprised the tune on at least two other albums. A good theme can always be an inspiration for future interpretations.  The mysterious melody evokes an almost unexpected encounter with someone or something or maybe an extraterrestrial. The music's unsettling line draws you in like a viewer of a Rod Serling episode. Ekroth's group brings the music to life with their own unique interpretations of the impressionistic scene. Raymond's drum work here is particularly inspired. 

The closing song on this album is Ekroth's "Vines," which opens with an abstract intro from her piano. Mohler's bass pulses with a sustained hum as Ekroth explores before letting loose in a more patterned expansion. Like vines left to their own devices, the music spreads, clings for support, and propagates into a larger entity. Mohler and Raymond create a whirl before Renfroe enters the scene with his own guitar-centric thoughts. Mohler gets his strings to hum with agitated vibrations before the group ends in a faded coda.  

Rachel Ekroth and her band delivered a creative evening of well-played, intelligent music and the audience responded in knowing appreciation.  Ekroth is a talent that is clearly growing as a composer and we look forward to hearing more from this artist.