Singer/pianist/composer Judith Berkson recently released Oylam, her second CD overall and debut recording for the ECM imprint. It is a reinforcement of the eclectic yet compelling musical aesthetic displayed on her first recording, Lu-Lu (Peacock); but it also displays considerable growth.
Though she’s still a young talent, I became aware of Berkson some time ago. In the early aughts, Berkson studied with microtonal maestro Joe Maneri (recently departed – terribly missed) and contemporary classical specialist soprano Lucy Shelton at the New England Conservatory of Music. In a happy instance of syncronicity, I interviewed Maneri during that same time period. During the course of our conversation, he pointed out Berkson as a special talent.
Nine years later, she’s more than confirmed his assessment. Although she plays and performs primarily in conventional tunings, Berkson retains an interest in angularity and spiky harmonies that demonstrates her thorough training in both modern music and avant jazz. Berkson’s originals are a rigorous amalgam of both of these idioms. She also displays a keen interest in Jewish liturgical and folk music. One of the standouts of the disc is a rendition of the folksong “Hulyet, Hulyet.” Here, she overdubs her voice to create a choir of Berksons: a fetching sound world, all the more inspiring because she doesn’t ‘overindulge’ in overdubbing, only doing it here.
Oylam includes unconventional yet engaging renditions of two standards – Porter’s “All of You” and Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take that Away from Me.” While she frequently reinvents the melodies of these chestnuts, one never feels that she does violence to their overall structure: quite the contrary. I enjoyed imagining the original tune in counterpoint while hearing her refreshing versions.
Berkson is a fine pianist; the album is bookended by two fine instrumentals: “Goodbye Friend No. 1″ and Goodbye Friend no. 2.” She’s also keen on exploring other keyboards, including synths and (for the first time here) Hammond organ. But often her instrument of choice is Fender Rhodes electric piano. While in other hands the Rhodes can sound a bit ‘carbon-dated’ to a particular era of vernacular music, it doesn’t appear that Berkson has selected the instrument to channel this repertory. Rather, her voice melds very attractively with the Rhodes, often creating a seamless dovetailing of instrumental and vocal lines.
The CD also includes an evocative version of Franz Schubert’s “Die Leiermann.” This lied is the final song in Winterreise and perhaps serves as a tantalizing foretaste of things to come. Berkson is currently at work on a large-scale project incorporating lieder. While I hope that she keeps the various strands of musical styles displayed here in the mix – originals, standards, Jewish liturgical/folksong – the thought of Berkson tackling a large-scale lieder project seems quite promising. Stay tuned.
Here’s Berkson performing live one of the tracks that appears on the ECM recording, a trope on Jewish traditional music entitled “Ahavas Oylam.”