New directions

Pianist Rachel Eckroth stakes out new territory in ‘When It Falls’

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Rachel Eckroth
Shervin Lainez

When Rachel Eckroth was an up-and-coming keyboardist in the jazz scene in Phoenix, Arizona, it was her father who took the teenaged Rachel to gigs at local bars. He was the loving patriarch of a musical family, a band director “from a family of band directors,” who raised three musical children.

“He was always just kind of my biggest fan,” Eckroth says.

So when her father died in January 2016, Eckroth wondered how she was going to keep moving forward, personally or professionally.

In the end, she did the thing she knew best, the thing her dad taught her to do: She made music.

Over the course of the next year and a half, Eckroth worked with her then-boyfriend (now husband), producer/bassist Tim Lefebvre, on a haunting collection of songs that debuted this September as When It Falls, her third full-length album and first full-tilt departure from jazz. It’s a meditation on the despair of death, the complexity of love, the inevitability of change and the comfort of hope, guided by Eckroth’s powerful alto.

The album is a representation of the new world Eckroth found herself habitating in 2016, one without her father but with the love of her life, moving away from the home she’d made in Brooklyn to start a new chapter in Southern California. As Eckroth surveys the topography of her emotions across When It Fall’s 11 tracks, she stakes out vast new sonic territory, with Lefebvre providing gentle guidance and encouragement along the way.

Lefebvre is a musical polyglot, fluent in improvisational jazz, rock and electronic grooves, a seasoned session bassist known for his innovative style. It’s why Davie Bowie recruited him to play bass on his final album, 2016’s Grammy-winning Blackstar. Lefebvre’s worked with trumpeter Chris Botti, mandolinist Chris Thile, electronic duo Empire of the Sun and reggae singer Matisyahu. Currently, Lefebvre plays blues with Tedeschi Trucks Band.

While Lefebvre helped shape When It Falls, Eckorth is its primary architect. The album is her experience, in her words, her lyrics a planetary force creating a sort of emotional gravity that pulls you in and grounds you.

The two make a formidable musical machine.

Eckroth’s experience as a “sideman” on gigs helped shape her equally eclectic musical palette. In addition to her education in jazz, Eckroth has performed as the backing vocalist and keyboardist for Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, and worked as part of the house band for the The Meredith Vieira Show on NBC (“That gig helped me finance my own musical projects,” Eckroth says). In 2017, Eckroth was asked to serve as the assistant music director for the Women’s March in D.C., running rehearsals for artists like Janelle Monáe, June Millington, Angelique Kidjo and the Indigo Girls.

Now Eckroth is taking When It Falls out on the road as the opening act for Rufus Wainwright, who she’s also playing keys for.

“I think being a sideman shaped me,” Eckroth says. “I’ve been getting into just creating sounds, kind of experimenting with pedals and affects and textures. … I’ve always had my own projects, but I’m always sitting behind a keyboard so I have little bit of a guard between me and the audience. So I don’t know what it’s like to stand up and be the front person — I’ve never done that. But I think the songs stand up for themselves this time around.”

When It Falls navigates dark subject matter without becoming morose, thanks to Eckorth’s carefully crafted lyrics and Lefebvre’s textured, ethereal soundscapes. It opens directly with Eckorth’s pain as she questions when she’ll recover from her father’s death in “Walls,” a trance-like cadence leading Eckroth away from her waking pain into her dreams where she can see him again. She and Lefebvre pay homage to Bowie — who died just two days after Eckroth’s father — with a faithful version of “Love Is Lost” from 2013’s The Next Day.

“There’s so much on the internet about different explanations of the song’s meaning,” Eckroth says. “For that song specifically, I have my own feelings. My mom thought it was about getting older. Everyone has a different feeling about it.”

There’s no question about her feelings in “Dark Waters,” a bare-bones, blues-tinged ode to jealousy. Derek Trucks keeps the dark blues vibe going with a searing guitar solo in “Strangest Dream.”

Synths take center stage for the new wave sound of “The Wasted Years” as the album begins a gentle spiral toward the psychedelic in “Collecting Bruises” and “Call My Name,” the latter written by Lefebvre and Tyler Greenwell, the drummer for Tedeschi Trucks.

When It Falls is Eckroth’s most endearing album yet, an exploration that leaves listeners rejuvenated and eager for more. It feels natural, so natural, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine a return to her jazz beginnings.

“I don’t think so,” Eckroth admits. “I like the direction things are going.”

On the Bill: Rachel Eckroth — opening for Rufus Wainwright. 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, bouldertheater.com