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Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Rachel Eckroth – One (Independent, 2023)

By Matty Bannond

While big-name celebrities are grabbing the spotlight, big talents can hide in plain sight. That’s Rachel Eckroth’s trick. The pianist has spent two decades lingering out of focus on TV shows like Saturday Night Live and backing up high-profile pop acts like KT Tunstall, St. Vincent and Rufus Wainright. But Eckroth’s recent solo album One showcases her own star quality as an improviser and composer.

The gifted pianist is not exactly an industry secret. Her 2021 album The Garden was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Instrumental Album category and she has released around ten records as leader or co-leader, depending how you add them up. However, One is Eckroth’s first full-length album as a soloist, following an eponymous four-track solo EP that came out in 2021. The sparse setting reveals her tireless capacity for invention across eleven tracks. The improvisations feel composed. The compositions feel improvised. It’s an intriguing and charismatic record.

The Chopin-infused opening of ‘Downstream, Upstream’ broadens out into a fragmented, hesitant melodic exploration. Typically, Eckroth lets chords or phrases hang in the air like an unfinished thought. Listeners are left dangling on the precipice of the next movement. Such patient solo playing adds a gravitational pull to each pattern. Eckroth uses her vast mental storehouse of styles, syntaxes and segues to keep tugging the tunes forward when they settle.

‘Miniscule’ is the shortest track. Staccato pulses create an unhurried-but-hurrying atmosphere. The album’s longest track is Eckroth’s free interpretation of Duke Ellington’s ‘Prelude to a Kiss’. It’s an insightful opportunity to observe the pianist’s mind climbing the keyboard’s mountaintops, hovering, then hurtling down to the valleys.

Solo albums can leave an artist exposed and short of ideas, but Rachel Eckroth’s playing on One demonstrates patient power and expressive expertise. Pretty shapes run up against lopsided patterns, and there is an irresistible sense of propulsion throughout. In sharp focus and center stage, Eckroth’s big talent has nowhere to hide. Even in plain sight.

The album is available for streaming and digital download here .