Pianist/composer Rachel Eckroth celebrates the release of Humanoid at the Los Angeles jazz venue Sam First on Friday, November 3 and Saturday, November 4. Two sets at 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Joining Eckroth are bassist Billy Mohler, guitarist Andrew Renfroe and drummer Tina Raymond. Tickets are available online for the Friday show and Saturday show.
“Humanoid is a departure for me,” Rachel Eckroth said (in the album liner notes written by Sharonne Cohen) about her new piano quartet album, recorded at Sam First jazz club in Los Angeles. “I’ve done so many records or projects where I’m playing keyboards, synths, weird sounds, electronics, even singing,” she says. “This record is a departure. It’s back to jazz, back to acoustic. And so it’s more human…. just piano. And for the most part, acoustic instruments.”
Eckroth’s first live recording, Humanoid, features bassist Billy Mohler and drummer Tina Raymond, both artists she has enjoyed playing with in the past, and guitarist Andrew Renfroe, who she, as a pianist, finds “the perfect guitarist to play with.” Eckroth found her collaborators “willing to be very open, on the spot, willing to try new things on the fly, and making it sound good at the same time.” Clearly a group of like-minded musicians, “nobody is too caught up in the music, or in their ways.” And the expansive tracks, all hovering around the 8-minute mark, offer much room for extended creative exploration.
The title track, written specifically for this album, reflects Eckroth’s desire to slow down and streamline. “I started off as a pianist, and I just put out a solo piano record. I’m in this world right now. I studied piano for a long time before I really got into keyboards and writing songs, and all the other stuff that happened in the last 15 years. I think this project is just a way to simplify my life a little bit, simplify the projects that I’m doing and the way I’m thinking about music, and maybe going a little slower.”
The album’s eight pieces – both originals and compositions by jazz luminaries – were chosen because they would do just that: lend themselves to a sense of openness, to the freedom and space to change up the groove, the feel and the sound. Not wanting to “over-arrange or over-compose or over- anything,” Eckroth aspired “to collaborate live, and there’s something that happens when you’re in a group like this, where everybody’s open to any direction, especially if it’s a live performance and people are really listening and in tune with each other. The club is a great environment, and they get a great sound and people are there to hear you. There’s something that happens in those moments that is just magic.”
All this is evident from the cinematic, mysterious and whimsical title track opening the album: the intimacy of the club, the attentiveness of the audience, and the openness and synergy of the band. An original composition, “Humanoid” also highlights Eckroth’s strong chemistry with Renfroe, illustrating her experience “matching up on different tones and places and spaces.” Eckroth’s other originals – the moody, angular “Under A Fig Tree,” the adventurous “Vines” (both originally appearing on The Garden) and the propulsive “Mind” further reveal her compositional strengths.
Another captivating chapter in Eckroth’s ever-evolving sound, this album comes on the heels of her Grammy-nominated, synth-forward The Garden (Rainy Day Records, 2021) and stunning solo piano improvisation album One, released earlier this year. It is a showcase not only of her skill and singularity as a player and improvisor, but her strengths as a bandleader and composer.
Taking her first piano lesson at the age of five, this accomplished, multifaceted musician has honed her craft over the four decades since, becoming not only a gifted and versatile pianist and keyboardist, but a vocalist and songwriter. Engaged in creative projects spanning jazz, indie and pop, she has played with artists ranging from Chris Botti to St. Vincent, Rufus Wainwright and KT Tunstall. Her collaborators have included Donny McCaslin, Tia Fuller, Tim Lefebvre and David Garza.
“Humanoid is more simply focused on the songs and what we could pull from them, rather than what we could add to them,” Eckroth says. “In a way I’m going back to my roots but taking everything that I’ve learned along the way and putting it in there. Now it’s this new thing. . . I think it’s definitely a great performance, and I think it’s some of the best straight-ahead playing I’ve done.”