Judith Berkson — Oylam (April 2010)•≡ Touch of the Cantor. Judith Berkson is a second–generation cantor and a performer that the Wall Street Journal calls “a genre–crossing singer–musician.” Her work weaves together jazz, experimental rock and Jewish liturgical music.
Location: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Released: April 2010
Recorded: April 2009 Artesuono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Design: Sascha Kleis
Produced: by Steve Lake
Genre: Jazz, Avant–Garde
Label: ECM (2121)
01. Goodbye Friend No.1 2:53
02. Brute 5:35
03. Inside Good Times 2:37
04. Clives 2:34
05. All Of You (Cole Porter) 4:45
06. Mi Re Do 3:44
07. Ahavas Oylam (Words: liturgical; Music: Judith Berkson) 3:40
08. Little Arrows 2:26
09. Der Leiermann (Music Franz Schubert, from "Winterreise"; Words: Judith Berkson) 3:42
10. Fallen Innocent Wandering Thieves 2:23
11. They Can’t Take That Away From Me (George and Ira Gershwin) 3:36
12. Burnt 3:05
13. Hulyet, Hulyet (Mordechai Gebirtig) 4:14
14. Goodbye Friend No.2 3:48
♠ Judith Berkson — voice, piano, Wurlitzer and Rhodes pianos, Hammond organ
♠ Produced by Steve Lake
♠ Photo credit: Jacob Garchik
♠ Design, Cover Design: Sascha Kleis
♠ Engineer: Stefano Amerio
♠ Photography, Liner Photos: Luca d'Agostino≡ Judith Berkson is an art–song vocalist in her early 30s who’s got some jazz training; she likes the Fender Rhodes at least as much as the piano, and she’s also a cantor. That’s a lot, and all of it fits comfortably into “Oylam,” her first album for ECM: standards and Schubert and liturgical music, swing and chilly silences, a beautiful Satie–like piece in two different versions, to open and close the record. I can’t get enough of it. Proof of an artist with iron will: this album, on a venerable label with wide distribution, sounds pretty similar to her first one, released on the tiny Brooklyn label Peacock Recordings. Ms. Berkson has an imperious talent, but she’s a calm, curious performer, devising brave ways to accompany herself.
≡ Arresting and highly original ECM solo debut for New York–based singer Judith Berkson, in a programme that features her own idiosyncratic songs and instrumentals, plus jazz standards (Cole Porter’s “All Of You”, George & Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”), “Der Leiermann” from Schuberts “Winterreise”, Jewish cantorial music, and Yiddish folk song.
• Judith Berkson (born 1977) is a soprano, pianist and composer living in Brooklyn, New York. She studied voice at New England Conservatory with Lucy Shelton, theory and composition with Joe Maneri, and piano with Judith Godfrey and Viola Haas.
• She has played at the Bruckner Tage in Austria, the American Festival of Microtonal Music, the Jewish Kultur Festival in Krakow and has premiered works by Gérard Pape, Ken Thomson, Joe Maneri, Matthew Welch, Ohad Talmor, Steve Coleman, Hans Breder, Carlos Cuellar, and Julia Werntz. She has sung with the Delphian Jazz Orchestra, Wet Ink New Music Collective, The Four Bags, ASM New Music Ensemble and Theodore Bikel and composed and arranged music for the Kronos Quartet.
• Judith is a cantor and teaches liturgical music at Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation in New York, and cantorial music and Hebrew liturgy counts amongst her earliest inspirations.• From the age of five she studied classical piano. As a teenager she was drawn to the experimental composers, “the avant–gardists and the people working with extended technique. I liked the challenge of that” but also worked at singing art songs from Schubert to Schoenberg.
• Singing and playing in jazz and experimental bands through the late 1990s, she curtailed much of this activity in the early 21st century to concentrate primarily on solo performance, looking anew at the possibilities for voice with keyboard accompaniment, and has come up with an approach entirely her own, and one which can encompass the full range of her musical interests.
• Her debut album “Lu–Lu” was released by Peacock Records in 2008 and praised by publications including the New York Times. “Oylam” is her first for ECM.
• In Autumn 2010 Berkson will be touring Europe with two ensembles. In the beginning of November she is on the road performing Ohad Talmor's chamber piece, "Mass Transformation" based on Bruckner's 3rd Mass with a mixed Austrian/American group. At the end of November she will be in Belgium and Holland playing with Indian percussionist Deep Singh and trumpeter Frank London. Detailed dates to follow.
By JOHN KELMAN, Published: May 21, 2010 | SCORE: ****½
• As renowned as Manfred Eicher is for his ability to scout out new talent deserving wider recognition, ECM's other regular (albeit less prolific) producer, Steve Lake, is equally worthy of similar consideration. Few others could have imagined the remarkable synchronicity of folk traditionalism and unfettered free play that came about when, after recruiting Robin Wililiamson for The seed–at–zero (2000), Lake pushed the British singer/songwriter into new territory by teaming him with Swedish multi–instrumentalist Ale Möller, and free improvisers Barre Phillips and Mat Maneri for The Iron Stone (2007). It's too early to tell if bringing Brooklyn–based singer/keyboardist/composer Judith Berkson into the ECM fold for Oylam will ultimately yield similar collaborative fruit, but this set of quirky originals, classical reworks, jazz standards, Jewish cantorial music and Yiddish folk songs is as unique, unconventional and compelling a solo effort as any the label has released in recent years.
• Berkson's second disc after her 2008 debut, Lu–Lu (Peacock Recordings), the overall concept may be similar—music for voice, accompanied in unorthodox fashion on electric piano or organ (acoustic piano is only used on six of Oylam's fourteen songs). But Berkson's inclusion of just two Jewish song, amongst an original–heavy repertoire that reflect her past work interpreting the microtonal art songs of the late Joe Maneri , creates a pervasive, subtle but unequivocally moving spirituality throughout.
• Berkson's instrumental chops are as broad as her source material, evoking abstruse majesty on the two versions of her own "Goodbye Friend" that bookend the disc — distantly hinting at the darker side of Erik Satie's compositional economy — while delivering a surprising reading of "All of You" that clarifies her intimacy with the jazz vernacular, even as she prismatically filters its iconic melody in ways that composer Cole Porter could never have envisaged. Her version of George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me" swings with requisite credibility, even as Berkson chooses, in an unusual move, to accompany herself on electric piano.
• Berkson possesses a voice as pliant as the demands of the music, singing with cantorial reverence in an interpretation of the liturgical text "Ahavas Olam" ("Everlasting Love") — accompanied, curiously, by Hammond organ — and layering her vocals to build three–part harmony on the haunting, a capella "Hulyet, Hulyet." Elsewhere, she demonstrates an incredible ability to manage the non–melismatic but technically demanding intervals and precisely articulated chromaticism of original songs like "Inside Good Times," winding her way through oblique melodies that, were it not for the clear evidence otherwise, would be hard–pressed to fall into the category of "singable." There's beauty to be found, too, in particular Berkson's lyric interpretation of Franz Schubert's "Der Leiermann," even as the subject matter — as on most of Oylam — leans to the bleak, the stark, and the brooding.
• ECM's affinity for singers is exceedingly select, but Oylam introduces, to a broader international audience, a singer worthy of inclusion in the small but significant club that already includes Norma Winstone , Sidsel Endresen and Susanne Abbuehl; distinct voices all, and ones who, like Berkson, prefer the road less traveled to the familiar and predictable path.
Personnel: Judith Berkson: voice, piano, Wurlitzer and Rhodes pianos, Hammond organ.
AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos; Score: ***½
Nancy Haught, The Oregonnian
John Fordham, Thursday 13 May 2010 21.45 BST; Score: ***
BY D.M. EDWARDS, 7 November 2010; Score: 7
By Kevin Macneil Brown
Reviewer: Jon Neudorf, Score: ***½