If you’re like me when it comes to music, then it’s likely that you’re constantly scouring the internet for exciting and unheard-of musical gems. I get especially hype when I come across women who play actual live instruments and play them well. Rachel Eckroth is undoubtedly one of these jewel artists who allow me to happily revel in indie girl coolness. Although you may not have heard of Rachel, you may have seen her. She is a member of the all-female house band on The Meredith Vieira Show on NBC. She gigs with her band relatively often but can also be found working as a side-woman playing piano or keyboard and singing across a range of genres.
One of my most memorable encounters with Rachel was on a winter evening in 2013. I packed into a tiny room to hear Rachel’s six-piece band perform as part of the Capricorn Music Festival in New York City. The room of about thirty or so musicians and fans received a steady flow of music that sampled a panoply of jazz-infused colors. As the group performed, the room pulsated with nodding heads entranced by the groove. That night, they performed Eckroth’s original tune, “More Beautiful Than That.” When they hit the bridge, I looked around the room—not a single body was still. Her music has a distinct charge. It’s a sonic road-trip, one that will take you places if you decide to let it. As she glided through changes on her keyboard, I remember thinking Damn, she can play.
Rachel is a Virgo. And of course, this astrological factoid reveals only the surface of her identity as an artist. Rachel hails from Phoenix, Arizona, where she was born and raised. She comes from a musical family—both her brother and father are musicians. Rachel began playing piano when she was six years old. In a phone interview, she admitted that she was shy as a child and would sometimes forget music in the midst of performance. You can still find traces of this childhood reticence in her performances. It’s mostly in the charm and gravity of her on-stage demeanor. With Rachel, the attention is always where it should be, on the music.
While Rachel does not consider herself to be a jazz musician in the strictest sense, there are certainly jazz elements to her playing. As a pianist/keyboardist, she has a firm grip on the jazz lexicon. Rachel can certainly hold down a solo through whatever standard might get called on the bandstand. Yet, her sound encompasses a broad range of not only genres but also musical periods within a given genre. For example, both tunes “Future” and “More Beautiful Than That” evoke the electronic/fusion eras in jazz of the 1970s and 80s. If you aren’t familiar with this sound, check out some Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea from this period. It’s laid-back and soulful in a way that hints at the neo-soul sound to come in the 90s.
Not only has Rachel taken genre as a category and bent, stretched, and flipped it, she has also done the interesting and important work of resurfacing the music of more obscure women artists like Patty Waters, an avant-garde jazz vocalist from the 1960s who comes out of the tradition of singers like Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone. Waters, who was discovered by jazz great Albert Ayler, virtually dropped off the scene by the late 1960s and has subsequently gone missing from jazz history. Rachel’s arrangement of Waters’ tune “Moon Don’t Come Up Tonight” (off of her album Let Go) transforms this at once sophisticated and borderline maudlin blues song into a heartbreak anthem that any gal can rock to after a break-up.
When I asked Rachel about her experience as a side-woman in jazz, I was reminded that yes, sexism is alive and well in the music world and that it can be transcended too. She told me about a recent gig she had done at Smalls, a well-known jazz club in NYC, where she learned that one of the musicians with whom she shared the bandstand that night and had never played with before had expressed doubts concerning her musical ability. It is no secret that recognition and respect for women musicians within the genre of jazz is and has been limited severely by the false notion that women can’t play. Rachel seemed to amplify the absurdity of sexism in the music industry by commenting, “I’m too old to care about what people think about my gender.” Rachel’s maturity as a female artist has allowed her not to let the nonsense of sexism hold her back from making music. As it shouldn’t.
As a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist, Rachel has an incredible amount of versatility. If you lean less towards the jazz influenced stuff and more toward pop, you have to check out her EP Makeover. It’s a series of covers she released earlier this year that capture her fierce capability as a pop artist. There are five freshly-remade pop gems of tracks on it. She sings a honeyed version of “Be Still My Beating Heart,” originally written and performed by Sting. Her version of “Latch” by Disclosure featuring Sam Smith is a personal favorite; she puts a Meshell Ndegeocello vibe on it that takes grown and sexy to another level. Other covers on the album include “Tighten Up” by the Black Keys and “I Fall Apart” by Peter Black. Have a listen to the video below to get a feel for what I mean here.
Rachel is high on my list of indie artists to look out for. As she continues to traverse new musical territory and grow as an artist, we can expect nothing but sheer brilliance. Keep both eyes on Rachel Eckroth.