The Garden, Rachel Eckroth
Pianist, composer and singer Rachel Eckroth’s first release on Rainy Days Records unveils fresh sounds from her evolving artistry. Steeped in synth orchestration, The Garden reflects a nuanced exploration of sonic impulses and inquiries alongside Eckroth’s signature layered compositions and glimmers of trance-inducing vocals. With contributions from acclaimed guitarist Nir Felder, saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Andrew Krasilnikov and modular synth master Austin White, and a core band featuring bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Christian Euman, The Garden emerged conceptually while Eckroth was writing new music during the pandemic. “Everything on the album has a different feel to it — different colors and textures,” says the West Coast artist. “It felt like a garden. So we just rolled with it.”
Eckroth revels in new experiences across rich, diverse musical settings. The multifaceted artist continually refines her expression, frequently collaborating as a featured guest with creative visionaries who have included Rufus Wainwright, St. Vincent, KT Tunstall, Donny McCaslin, Tia Fuller and Chris Botti. But composing during the pandemic afforded Eckroth and partner Lefebvre unique opportunities to compose and perform together. From their home in Arizona, they dug in to each other’s expressions and began developing a duo sound. “Especially during Covid, we were making music pretty much every day together,” says Eckroth. When Eugene Petruhanskiy greenlit a possible release from Eckroth for Rainy Days, she and Lefebvre considered what they might create around a synth-forward recording. The textural-minded musicians began soundscaping across familiar territory and new domains. Almost immediately, the Prophet 6 emerged as a key element for record’s sound. “It ends up on a lot of my live gigs,” says Eckroth. “I’ve used it on all the tours I’ve played with other people. I’m a pianist, but the record doesn’t have a lot of piano. The Yamaha CP 70 served the ‘meat’ of some of the songs. And the Korg minilogue is an instrument I use really well for some reason; it’s very intuitive.”
The band assembled somewhat naturally, as well. Eckroth had Euman in mind from the start, and zeroed in on McCaslin early in the composing process. “Christian was really great on my music in LA, and he can pretty much play anything,” she says. “I’ve had Donny’s sound in my head for a while, so I had the idea, ‘This would really work out with Donny — I hope he says yes’ [laughs].” Remaining personnel unfolded as the record developed, and soon the artists were ready to record in person and track remotely.
As a moving image slowly coming into focus, “Dracaena” opens with a bass and drums figure that rapidly engages all three faculties of The Garden’s sound: synth work, compositional arcs and unbridled improvisation. A compelling feature for McCaslin, the album opener features his twisted melodicism, lamentation and fullness of texture. “Low Hanging Fruit” reflects Eckroth’s appetite for slick, snaky melodies and syncopation. Played in unison with Lefebvre’s bass, Eckroth’s piano line creates atmospheric displacement that expands and contracts through the music. Ghostly tones and Felder’s mood-shifting guitar introduce “Dried Up Roots,” one of The Garden’s only lyric tunes. Euman’s elastic groove serves the leader’s lucid dreamlike vocal on the Eckroth-Lefebvre original.
Album title track “The Garden” proffers a richly textured statement from Eckroth who, at different moments, contributes piano, Prophet 6 and Mellotron. She and McCaslin play off one another’s ominous lyricism in a series of trades that lead into a short, potent feature for Lefebvre. Against a strong compositional pulse, Lefebvre desired a “free floating” feeling on “Black-Eye Susan.” Initially conceived with drums in mind, the album’s penultimate track is its only selection to feature White’s distinctive sound. “He does a lot of interesting modular synth improvisation, so we asked him to play along and it turned out real cool,” says Eckroth. The resulting composition is meditative and layered, a vessel for creativity and nuanced restraint. “Oil” slips and crunches and builds into a kind of anthemic closer. The music ebbs, flows leaves room for breath catching as well as deliberate exhaling. Another blistering solo from McCaslin brings the record full circle from the opening track.
Eckroth began composing for big bands and large ensembles early in her career. Those years spent writing very deliberately and creatively using different textures and compositional arcs have had a compelling influence on her songwriting and her artistic identity as a solo artist. The Garden captures her experiences as a collaborator in a variety of contexts over the course of her career so far. Its quiet confidence signals a new direction for the renaissance artist and her fellow musicians. “We just want to make this weird music that we’re hearing,” she says. “It’s bold because we’re just doing what we do. We don’t need to show off, we just want to play what feels good to us.”