Monday, May 24, 2010

The Musical Unity of Berkson’s Oylam

Everything is connected, even music. Finding those connections is often the tricky part, but Judith Berkson has a talent for exactly that. The Brooklyn-based vocalist and composer worked with artists as diverse as Joe Maneri, Theodore Bikel, and the Kronos Quartet, while still maintaining true to her identity. A cantor as well as a fixture of the downtown experimental music scene, Berkson synthesizes musical forms seemingly worlds apart on Oylam, her latest CD from ECM Records, which she officially launches tonight with a special release concert at Joe’s Pub.

Accompanying herself on acoustic piano, electric Rhodes, and Hammond organ, Oylam is a starkly intimate solo outing. The program begins and ends with differing takes of Berkson’s instrumental original “Goodbye Friend.” Dramatically impressionistic in style, they demonstrate both Berkson’s jazz and classical influences. “Goodbye” number one seamlessly segues into her first vocal, “Brute.” Rhythmically forceful, it is an effective vehicle for her unique delivery, in which the lyrics seem to tumble forth, the product of an ecstatic reverie.

Logically, the most explicitly jazz-oriented performances come during Berkson’s interpretations of the Great American Songbook. Showing a remarkable range that distills the lyricism of Cole Porter’s “All of You” to its essence, she also takes a swinging piano solo that should satisfy jazz traditionalists. Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” almost sounds funky in comparison to rest of the CD due to Berkson’s switch to the Hammond. Again, she takes a brief but legit jazz solo, but her vocal treatment is lighter in tone, playful even.

Still, the undeniable highlights of Oylam speak directly to Berkson’s faith and heritage. Accompanied by the Hammond set to high church, the cantorial prayer for unity “Ahavas Oylam” becomes the spectacular centerpiece of the session. With her heartfelt, deeply spiritual performance, it is clear Berkson has a genuine affinity for such music (and the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation is fortunate to have her cantorial services).

Technically, Berkson arranges Mordechai Gebirtig’s Yiddish folk song “Huylet, Huylet” a cappella, but accompanies herself through overdubs. Indeed, the lyrics penned by Gebirtig, the Polish poet fatally shot during the round-up of the Krakow ghetto, are quite musical, while simultaneously evoking the tragedy and dignity of the poet’s life.

Fusing jazz, experimental, classical, and cantorial music, Berkson’s uncompromising music defies categorization. The resulting Oylam is a truly memorable, often arresting set, but it demands attention casual listeners might not necessarily be prepared to give. Berkson performs her stirring music live at Joe’s Pub tonight (5/24) and Oylam officially goes on-sale tomorrow at all online retailers.

(Photo: Jacob Garchik)