Like the absurdity of the last 18 months would have it, it took musician and singer Rachel Eckroth to return to the desert to release an album titled The garden– sure, it’s not a standard album either. So the story of how The garden came to be might actually make sense in its scattered, jazzy way.
When the pandemic began, Eckroth and her husband Tim Lefebvre were still living in Los Angeles. Eckroth has had several releases as a solo artist and featured artist, playing the piano, singing and performing with artists like St. Vincent and Rufus Wainwright. Lefebvre is also a musician and producer, playing bass and guitar.
Needless to say, during those early days of social distancing, Eckroth and Lefebvre had plenty of time to jam at home. Eckroth describes it as an improvisation of “crazy music” with all the instruments, keyboards and pedals in their house.
The founder of a Russian jazz label, Rainy Days Records (with whom Lefebvre worked), heard their house improvisations and thought it would be great to turn them into a full album. Eckroth officially started writing the album after moving to Tucson in late 2020. Eckroth grew up in Phoenix and got his Masters in Jazz, so The garden served as a sort of literal and musical homecoming.
âSo I was a jazz musician from the start, and around 30 I started writing songs with lyrics,â Eckroth said. âI kind of went in that direction for a while and had personal success writing lyrics. I was able to take my songwriter songs and open for people like Rufus Wainwright. So it wasn’t like I had never completely quit jazz, I was bringing something else to the fore. But for that, we had a lot of time to play around with the sound and figure out what kind of record we wanted it to be.
The garden is a unique jazz record, conducted by Eckroth on a variety of synthesizers, but still leaving room for several saxophones, guitars and drums. Songs like âUnder a Fig Treeâ and âLow Hanging Fruitâ combine loaded jazz rhythms with electronic elements, bass and piano grooves and a dark production style. Eckroth says the theme of the album comes from each sound having âdifferent colors and textures,â like a garden. However, she says most of the music on the album came before the tracks had thematically related names.
âIt’s very free but angular, and there are a lot of weird textures. That way it’s definitely not like a traditional jazz vibe, âEckroth said.
Although there are avant-garde jazz horns and percussion, many songs still leave enough room for brass solos and beautiful piano sections. Eckroth says some of his biggest influences go into The garden were jazz pianists Carla Bley and Herbie Hancock, although she maintains that the album is “less like a Herbie Hancock synth and more like an electrified Miles Davis record”.
Because The garden was written and recorded during a pandemic, recording sessions were reduced. The garden was recorded at the Sonic Ranch near El Paso and dubbed here in Tucson.
âIt was a fairly small group of us who got to present the basic parts of the songs. We also did improvisation there. But the other four players were passed, âEckroth said. âIn my mind, I had planned most of it. At least where the guys were going to play. It was a little different with [guitarist] Nir Felder on ‘Dried Up Roots’, because we needed him to do solos and play the whole song. So we did a virtual session, listening to it in New York. Basically, we were producing it from Tucson while he was recording … But for the saxophonists, I actually left room in the arrangements. I chatted with Donny McCaslin on one of the songs, so I literally left some room during the recording.
“Dried Up Roots” is a track that clearly stands out, and not just because it’s the only one with lyrics. The longest song on the album at over seven minutes, “Dried Up Roots” works as a kind of progressive centerpiece. The hushed intro leads to Eckroth’s soulful voice on alienation. Just as she sings “My roots dried up and I started to lose my way,” a quirky synth sends the song down a claustrophobic middle passage. The whole song remains in a cloudy mix of rock, ambient and jazz, leaving just enough room for an uplifting guitar solo and Eckroth’s powerful vocals.
âMost of my records online are as a vocalist, but I also wanted to distinguish myself as a keyboardist. So adding those few voices kind of puts it all together, âEckroth said. âItâs fine with me, because Iâm going back to my roots in a way. Returning to Arizona was a very similar experience, exploring familiar territory. And Tucson is also where I started as a songwriter. I found myself here writing like I was writing music. ??