Finding Connection and Hope ‘From Afar’
Department of Music
Bassist Jeffry Eckels in performance in Memorial Hall.
Trigger warning: suicide
At this point, it’s a well-known story. The pandemic hit the Americas in March 2020 and musicians’ gigs were canceled, quarantine began, and connection to others became more valued than ever before. For jazz professor Stephen Anderson, the pandemic also meant no studio time to record the next album with his band the Dominican Jazz Project. The fact that Desde Lejos, released in July 2021 and currently being considered for the GRAMMY ballot, was recorded, edited, and published during the pandemic is a profound example of perseverance and ingenuity.
As their name suggests, many of the group’s members reside in the Dominican Republic. The isolation of the pandemic was a particularly disheartening blow for them as they had recorded their first album in 2016 and spent the next few years touring and giving masterclasses at universities across the North American continent. 2020 was going to be their long-awaited return to the studio. Instead, they found themselves isolated from each other aside from WhatsApp – which is not conducive to music-making.
Then the group suffered another enormous loss, the death of their beloved friend and bassist Jeffry Eckels. After losing his mother suddenly in late May, as well as struggling both mentally and financially with the isolation of the pandemic, Jeffry took his life on July 3, 2020.
“As we did frequently, he called me to talk. He was struggling with the passing of his mother and with suddenly finding himself with no source of gigging income. He asked me if we could record his composition, Siempre Adelante, for the CD, and we started making plans for how he and I might record our parts together, socially distanced in the studio. I was excited about that, and then, suddenly without any warning, within a few weeks of that phone call, we received the tragic news that Jeffry had also passed away,” recounted Anderson.
“We were all in shock. I personally was devastated, as Jeffry was one of my closest friends and had been on almost every tour, project, and recording with me for the past 19 years. I composed the tune, ‘Sin Palabras,’ in honor of Jeffry out of pure emotion in the days following the news of his death.”
“Sin palabras” translates to “without words” or “at a loss for words.” This was an emotion that would repeat later that summer when saxophonist Sandy Gabriel lost his father, and respected Dominican musician, Sócrates Gabriel, in August 2020.
The group was mourning tremendous losses and the continuing challenge of being isolated from one another. Amidst these profound losses, they began to gain energy and momentum from a new addition to the ensemble.
“We were excited that the renowned Cuban bassist, Ramon Vázquez Martirena (who resides in Puerto Rico and tours with Chucho Valdés) agreed to join our group for the recording. Yet when the time came for Ramon to record his parts, his mother became severely ill, and he needed to be with her in the hospital during that time,” remembered Anderson. “Eventually, Ramon contributed six tracks to the recording, and we invited friends of Jeffry—bassists Craig Butterfield and Jason Foureman—to also record with us.”
Recording separately created yet another set of challenges for the musicians. Jazz is an incredibly collaborative genre with individuals taking turns to solo on the tracks. Having to recreate this environment in an authentic manner while recording solo at home took many hours of post-production and enormous talent from each member and guest artist of the group.
Read more on the UNC Department of Music website.
January 23, 2023