Human Geography
Release date: June 21, 2024
Label: Truth Revolution Recording Collective

Human Geography is the newest album by GRAMMY-nominated pianist and composer Michael Eckroth and it combines the skill and passion gleaned from years of recording, writing, and performing within this fluid blend of Latin American music and modern jazz for which he is so known and creates something that is uniquely personalized.

Inherently paying homage to the cultures of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the vast amalgam that comprises jazz, Human Geography is an individualized perspective on the overlap of these traditions that showcases an intimate knowledge of and love for the genres - yet it does not adhere entirely to the normative frameworks. Featuring a rotating cast of piano trios with a selection of horn appearances, Human Geography is a masterwork of collaborative ebullience with an emphatic adoration of the cultures and traditions from which it is derived.

The album’s title, Human Geography, was taken from a concept in sociology in which cultures - and the people within them - are tied to their geographical location. This theory looks at how the location influences a culture as it interacts with the world around it and the other cultures with which it coincides. Through this process, a culture becomes not defined by a single attribute, but by the history of its people, its place, and the ebb and flow of its exchanges with other communities. Similarly, the music that Eckroth has created over the past decade, and the curated selection present on the album, stands as a musical representation of this sociological notion. This music itself is not a distilled version of any single tradition but is instead defined by the locations, the people, and the musical histories with which the composer and his ensembles have interacted. In so doing, Human Geography stands as a sort of map, charting the processes, progression, and development of a sound, with Eckroth standing as its great cartographer. 

Musically, Eckroth keeps his compositional style influenced by but distinct from any specific artist or tradition, preferring to keep his final sonic product unique to his ensemble’s sound, learning from rather than merely emulating the legacies of those who’ve come before. In this way, while one may note the influence of great pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the complete sound that is achieved is unequivocally that of Eckroth himself. The music of Human Geography likewise reflects this, between the personality of each composition and the blend of influences of each band member that, as Eckroth says, “similarly cover the space between Latin jazz and mainstream swing-based jazz with enthusiasm.”

The album opens with its title track, featuring piano trio with horns. The piece “Human Geography” stands as an apt summation of a series of compositions Eckroth wrote that incorporate jazz with a guaguancó rhythmic sensibility. On this track, Eckroth utilizes a 5/4 rhythmic basis over a long harmonic form, culminating in a vamp, with both sections acting as vehicles for improvisation. “Freedom in Precision” similarly leans into guaguancó jazz rhythms, while harmonically and structurally standing in contrast by periodically shifting to single-chord vamps instead of remaining strictly bipartite in form. “Kachina” is loosely Afro-Cuban in sensibility, but veers from the norm in that its support beam is an angular bass line with a rich harmonic ecosystem atop it. Notably, “Kachina” showcases the use of synthesizer for orchestration, which Eckroth notes is a sound he’s leaning increasingly towards as a poignant palette within composition. “Little B’s Poem” is set apart in that it is the only piece on the album that is an arrangement, not an original composition. An ode to Herbie Hancock and Bobby Hutcherson, the piece aligned neatly with the vision of the album, and features trumpeter Alex Norris, saxophonist Peter Brainin, and drummer Joel Mateo. “New Bomba” is a piece composed heartily upon a series of interwoven ostinatos, with the Puerto Rican bomba rhythm as the basis for them all. The album concludes with “Hilton”, the title of which is a tribute to the great Hilton Ruiz, whose music has become increasingly influential on Eckroth.

Eckroth is quick to give praise to his band members in achieving the powerful vibrancy of this album. All of the musicians on the album are longstanding collaborators for Eckroth, with each one representing a lengthy history of performing and creating together. Above all, Eckroth values the musicians’ ability to fit anywhere and envision anything. “These musicians are supremely flexible, and most importantly are able to bring out more than what’s intended by the compositions and arrangements,” Eckroth says. “It’s a group aesthetic that has been nurtured over several years of sporadic playing.” The album boasts multiple arrangements of piano trios, changing bassists and percussionists both to suit the needs of each piece and to represent different moments in Eckroth’s musical history. The personnel on Human Geography is Michael Eckroth (piano, Rhodes, keyboards); Joel Mateo (drums); Raul Reyes, Edward Perez, and Alex “Apolo” Ayala (bass); Mauricio Herrera and Carlos Maldonado (percussion); Matt Hilgenburg and Alex Norris (trumpet); and Peter Brainin (tenor saxophone). 

With Human Geography, Eckroth showcases not only his indomitable command of the piano keys and the heartstrings, but the intentional beauty of careful knowledge as each piece, each groove, and each collaboration is a masterfully crafted charter between cultures and worlds. Truly, Human Geography stands as a landmark in the truest sense as it denotes the histories and traditions within the locale of the human experience.

Human Geography releases June 21, 2024, via Truth Revolution Recording Collective. 

Plena
Release date: October 15, 2021
Label: Truth Revolution Records

Plena is the new album from renowned pianist and composer Michael Eckroth. On this eight-track collection of original music, Eckroth has assembled a brilliantly cohesive set that maintains a firm relationship with the foundations of Afro-Latin jazz while actively seeking new avenues of expression. “I was looking to create music that was lyrical, modern, and true to its Afro-Latin roots, but never purist in its approach,” he shares. The resulting work is a mesmerizing Latin jazz set that embraces a wide variety of musical lineages. 

Equally at home playing straight ahead jazz, Latin jazz, and a plethora of Latin American and Caribbean styles, the Phoenix, Arizona-native has enjoyed a fruitful career as a bandleader and sideman. A GRAMMY nominated artist, Eckroth’s releases have been received with universal praise and his skills as a pianist and keyboardist have made him a regular fixture on the New York jazz scene commanding the attention of such staple names as John Scofield and Sheena Easton. Recently, Eckroth gained further acclaim as the co-founder of Orquesta Akokán, one of the most invigorating Cuban mambo bands in recent history; their self-titled 2018 release featuring Eckroth’s arrangements went on to receive a Grammy nomination for Best Tropical Latin Album. 

Eckroth comes to the fore on Plena, his first full-length release as a leader since 2015’s well-received Piano + Rhythm. The musicians on Plena, which is named in relation to the folkloric music from Puerto Rico, prove to be important contributors exemplified by galvanizing performances by bassist Alex “Apolo” Ayala, drummer Joel Mateo and ubiquitous percussionist Mauricio Herrera. Together, these world-class musicians command attention from the opening moments of “And So It Goes”, laying a solid foundation for Eckroth to let loose. The veteran saxophonist Peter Brainin is a fresh secondary solo voice, laying down a mesmerizing soprano saxophone performance on “Superspreader”, a tune that at times recalls the very best of Hermeto Pascoal’s output. 

The music on Plena relies heavily on the superimposition of disparate harmonic and melodic elements with the rhythms of bomba and plena. The title track “Plena” features the ensemble playing a melancholic melody over a slow but effervescent plena rhythm with the percussion section augmented to a great effect by Carlos “Carly” Maldonado. A standout moment is a lyrical solo by bassist Ayala who navigates the harmony with strong melodicism and inviting tone. 

The track serves as a blueprint of sorts for the entire project. Eckroth explains: “I’ve felt inspired to incorporate the bomba and plena rhythms of Puerto Rico in this band’s music, partially because of what Joel and Alex bring to the table, and partially as a way to expand the rhythmic repertoire of the group.” A central element to the recording, the role of the percussion in the compositions has been comprehensively considered. “There is a deliberate dialogue between the percussion of Carly Maldonado and the compositional elements I’ve presented, as well as references evident in the playing style of the other musicians,” Eckroth illustrates. 

Firmly in the jazz tradition, “Invernadero” is a post-modern contrafact over the changes of the standard “What Is This Thing Called Love”, showcasing the dynamic rhythm section in bassist Edward Perez, drummer Juan Felipe Mayorga, and percussionist Samuel Torres. 

The undeniably cool “Soul Cha” features seasoned trombonist John Fedchock blends seamlessly with Brainin on the head, and then shines on a short but masterfully crafted solo. The Grammy-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch lends his distinct voice on “Exotic Particles”,  a composition that would be equally at home on a 60’s Blue Note record – or a classic Latin jazz LP. 

Throughout the album, Eckroth demonstrates a keen aesthetic sense in blending folk traditions with modern jazz compositions. “Like much of Latin jazz, this is a fusionistic approach, as I’m not attempting to recreate folkloric playing styles,” the bandleader shares. “This is carving out an individualistic path, all with respect to the creators of these varied folkloric and jazz forms.” The experience and mastery of Eckroth and his cohorts make Plena a delight to listen to, and a worthy addition to the bandleader’s already stellar discography.

 

MORE ABOUT MIKE ECKROTH
Michael Eckroth, pianist and keyboardist, is an active performer in New York and worldwide, having worked extensively with musicians such as jazz icons John Scofield, Ron McClure, Eliot Zigmund and Paul McCandless. Equally at home in jazz and latin-American music forms, Michael received a Grammy nomination for his work on the 2018 Cuban music album by Orquesta Akokan, which received rave reviews on outlets such as NPR and France’s FIP. He is also a recipient of a PhD from New York University and a former music professor at Dartmouth College. In Fall 2021, Michael will enter a full-time position as Assistant Professor of music at Florida International University.

Throughout a varied career which covers musical styles from jazz, R&B, pop, salsa, Cuban music, and American and world music in general, Michael has shared the stage with performers with as varied pedigrees as pop icon Sheena Easton and jazz legend Scofield. In an over 15 year stint as a New York-based musician, Michael performed on local stages everywhere from major jazz clubs like Blue Note, Birdland, 55 Bar, Zinc Bar and Smalls to larger NYC venues such as Lincoln Center’s Summer Stage. On the international stage, Michael has performed in venue and festival settings everywhere from the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, the North Sea Jazz Festival, Jazz al Parque and Salsa al Parque in Bogotá, SFJazz, WOMAD festivals in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand- all over the United States, the Americas and Europe in concert halls, jazz clubs and outdoor festival settings.

Michael is an avid recording artist, writer and arranger who continues to draw accolades for his work in various settings. With several solo albums to his name, he also is called upon as a collaborator who has worked on dozens of original-music albums as pianist, keyboardist, or musical director. Among the many collaborations he’s brought forward are the groups La Voz De Tres (with Jason Ennis and Natalia Bernal) and DEFtrio (with Greg Diamond), and various productions with Broadway/R&B artist Syndee Winters. He has also worked alongside Grammy-award winning producer Jacob Plasse on a variety of popular and world music projects as writer and arranger. He has most recently recorded as a solo artist or collaboratively for Daptone and Truth Revolution records in NYC. 

JOE ROSS
ROOT MUSIC REPORT
"Eckroth’s music is very earnest, with a sound that projects deep beliefs and may even change the way you perceive the world." Read this review here.

 

DEE DEE MCNEIL
MUSICAL MEMOIRS
"This is not only jazz, it’s international music that can make the world smile." Read the review here.

JONATHAN BLACKMAN
OCCHI MAGAZINE
"Pianist Michael Eckroth is not foreign to success." Read the full review here.

VICENTE TOLEDO
FUNDACIÓN NACIONAL PARA LA CULTURA POPULAR
"Plena’ (2021) es un proyecto interesante, donde más allá de buscar expresiones heterogéneas en los ritmos afro-latino, se enfrasca en pinceladas que recorren horizontes de carácter boricua con pizcas de plena y bomba."  Para leer esta reseña presione aquí.

 

JAZZPRESS
Read the album announcement in Polish here.

JOSÉ RAMON
LA HABITACIÓN DEL JAZZ
"Eckroth combines jazz with Afro rhythms and Latin folklore while respecting all those feelings. The result is a tasty rhythmic dish." Read the full review in Spanish here.

DAN BILAWSKY
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Eckroth's consistently impressive handiwork and creative dynamism remain the driving forces in this music." Read the 4-star review here.

JAY N. MILLER
THE PATRIOT LEDGER
"The song “Plena” works over a sizzling rhythm and a cinematic piano line – the soundtrack to a movie I definitely want to see." Review here.