Ask Rachel Eckroth how she defines her music, and she struggles a bit. His influences are too wide and varied to suggest a simple answer.
But ultimately, she offers an answer that could easily serve as the title of an as-yet-unwritten album. Eckroth is, in his own words, “on the periphery of jazz.”
“I started out studying jazz,” the pianist, singer, songwriter and recent Grammy nominee said in an interview. “I went to New York to become a jazz musician and learned from the best. But the work I do covers all kinds of genres. There are many facets of myself.
The UC Santa Barbara community will get a chance to experience its multidimensional musical personality at 4 p.m. Thursday, when Eckroth will headline a free concert at the University Center’s Hub. His trio, which also includes bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Dan Schnelle, will perform with the UCSB Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Jon Nathan.
Originally from Arizona — she grew up in Phoenix and currently lives in Tuscon — Eckroth has long been accustomed to life on the road. When she was young, both of her parents were in a country music band and she remembers joining them on short tours.
“They would put the kids in the car and take us away,” she said. “I think that’s where my older brother (who became a professional pianist) and I got hooked on music. We got to see what was going on behind the scenes. It was a super fun adventure.
She started piano lessons at the age of six, but never really liked making music until she was 14. That year, “I joined the jazz band in high school and started learning improvisation and musical arrangement,” she recalls. “It was a whole new world, and I fell in love with it. Instead of having to stick to what was on the page, I got to create my own thing.
Eckroth earned music degrees at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Rutgers University in New Jersey, focusing primarily on piano. It wasn’t until her late twenties that she seriously began writing – and singing – her own songs, in the mold of great 1990s singer-songwriters such as Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLaughlin.
“There were people in my life who said, ‘You’re going to confuse everyone if you don’t pick one thing,'” she said. “But I couldn’t do it!” I was working on a classical string quartet some time ago. I like to see what I can do (in all kinds of genres). I also wrote a lot of big band music.
Over the years she has worked as an accompanist with world class musicians from various genres including Chris Botti, St. Vincent and Rufus Wainwright. His latest album, “The Garden”, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
“I really appreciate people who aren’t one-trick ponies,” said Jon Nathan, lecturer in the music department at UC Santa Barbara and director of the Jazz Ensemble. “I admire people who are able to transform themselves in different musical situations. I’ve heard Tim Lefebvre play everything from southern rock to progressive jazz. It covers everything, including some really experimental stuff. He is also sometimes a substitute with Jon Batiste’s group. He is not scared.
“Rachel has the same kind of aesthetic. As a songwriter, she does interesting and thought-provoking things. (Married couple), they’re both musicians who maintain a high artistic level.
Eckroth is no stranger to Santa Barbara; she toured here with Botti and for a time played regularly in the piano bar of the Hotel Miramar. Thursday’s concert will begin with a short set by the Jazz Ensemble, after which she and her trio will join her. She plans to include “a few new instrumental things that I wrote last month.”
In addition to bringing world-class artists to the UC Santa Barbara community, Nathan is happy to expose his student musicians to successful professionals.
“Being able to sit down and talk directly to these artists about their lives and how they got to where they got to is important,” he said. “I hope it will be inspiring. I want them to have a memorable experience and to be even more excited about playing music.
The Rachel Eckroth Trio will perform with the UCSB Jazz Ensemble from 4-6 p.m. Thursday, May 19 at the UCEN Hub, 558 UCEN Road on the UC Santa Barbara campus. Free entry. The performance is sponsored by Gretsch Drums, the UCSB Finance Board, the UCSB Jazz Ensemble and the UCEN Hub.