As the absurdity of the last 18 months would have it, it took musician and singer Rachel Eckroth returning to the desert to release an album titled The Garden—admittedly, it’s not a standard album, either. So the story of how The Garden came to be might actually make sense in its own scattered, jazzy way.
When the pandemic first started, Eckroth and her husband Tim Lefebvre still lived in Los Angeles. Eckroth has multiple releases both as a solo artist and a featured artist, playing 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 improvising “crazy music” with all the instruments, keyboards and pedals in their house.
The founder of a Russian jazz label, Rainy Days Records (who Lefebvre has worked with), heard their home improvs and thought it would be great to turn them into a full album. Eckroth began formally writing the album after moving to Tucson toward the end of 2020. Eckroth grew up in Phoenix and earned her master’s in jazz, so The Garden served as a kind of literal and musical homecoming.
“So I was a jazz musician from the beginning, and around 30 I started writing songs with lyrics,” Eckroth said. “I sort of went 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 ever fully left jazz, I was putting something else at the forefront. But for this, we had a lot of time to play around with sound and figure out what kind of record we wanted it to be.”
The Garden is an unique jazz record, led by Eckroth on a variety of synthesizers, but still leaving room for multiple saxophones, guitars and drums. Songs like “Under a Fig Tree” and “Low Hanging Fruit” combine busy jazz rhythms with electronic elements, bass and piano grooves, and a dark production style. Eckroth says the album’s theme comes from every sound having “different colors and textures” like a garden. However, she says most of the music on the album came before the tracks had thematically linked names.
“It’s very free yet angular, and there are a lot of strange textures. In that way, it’s definitely not like a traditional jazz vibe,” Eckroth said.
While there are some wild avant-garde jazz horns and drumming, many songs still leave enough room for brass solos and some beautiful piano sections. Eckroth says some of her biggest influences going into The Garden were jazz pianists Carla Bley and Herbie Hancock, though she maintains that the album is “less like a Herbie Hancock synth record and more like a Miles Davis electrified record.”
Because The Garden was written and recorded during a pandemic, recording sessions were kept small. The Garden was recorded at Sonic Ranch near El Paso and overdubbed here in Tucson.
“It was a pretty small group of us who were able to lay out the basic parts of the songs. We did some improvisation there, as well. But the other four players were overdubbed,” Eckroth said. “In my mind, I had most of it planned out. 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 over the whole track. So we did a virtual session, listening along to him in New York. Basically we were producing it from Tucson while he was recording.... But for the saxophone players, I actually left space in the arrangements. I trade off with Donny McCaslin on one of the songs, so I literally just left space when we were recording.”
“Dried Up Roots” is a clear standout track, and not only because it’s the only one with lyrics. The longest song on the album at more than seven minutes, “Dried Up Roots” works as a kind of progressive centerpiece. The hushed intro leads to Eckroth’s soulful vocals about alienation. Just as she sings “My roots dried up and I began to lose my way,” an off-kilter synthesizer sends the song into a claustrophobic middle passage. The whole song stays in a murky blend of rock, ambient and jazz, leaving just enough room for an uplifting guitar solo and Eckroth’s powerful singing.
“Most of the records of me online are as a singer, but I wanted to distinguish myself as a keyboard player as well. So adding those few vocals in kind of puts it all together,” Eckroth said. “It fits, because I’m returning 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 composer. I found myself here writing the way I used to write music.”