Judith Berkson voice, piano, Wurlitzer and Rhodes pianos, Hammond organ
Recorded April 2009 at Artesuono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Steve Lake
Oylam marks the ECM debut of singer/composer/keyboardist Judith Berkson. Although the title denotes “world, universe, creation, reality, realm,” the music seems to append the word “inner” to each of these notions. As a cantor and teacher of liturgical music at New York’s Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, Berkson is rooted in tradition, but also in the atonal composers that moved her in her teens. She also studied theory and composition with Joe Maneri, thus teasing out a label connection through this recording. Her solo work is a more recent development, the fruit of her time spent in various group contexts. Since 2003, she has focused her energies on her own accompaniment: “I’ve been trying to redefine, for myself, what that might mean, exploring new ways in which voice and piano can be combined and performed by one person, working on all the different possibilities of rhythm, melody, harmony, texture and so on.” Berkson employs a modest range of keyboards and effects, lending a distinctly personal cast to this set of mostly originals, with a stroll down Standards Lane for good measure.
The solo piano “Goodbye Friend No.1” sets the tone for a program that is equal parts resignation and resentment, an honest and brooding look at the air of separations that binds us. Such are the ironies we ecnounter. In the insistence of Berkson’s right hand—especially in songs like “Brute” and “Mi Re Do,” where flashes of dissonance and curlicues of loss reside in every unanswered question—turns the tarnished crystal of experience through which not all light may pass. That same right hand also flits in and out of sync with the lead of “Inside Good Times.” Uncanny in its imagery of children, offerings, and vapor, this song is smoothly contradictory, the first in a peppering of aural sticky notes (see “Little Arrows,” “Fallen Innocent Wandering Thieves,” and “Burnt”) filled with poetic shorthand.
The piano more often takes on a vocal role, while the words, expressed through the inadequacies of lips and tongue, are the beggar’s accompaniment. The supposed angst of urban living lays the bedrock of a bond that almost screams: Labels of praise are their own opposites. Between the wordless flexion of “Clives” and the rounded phrasings of “All Of You,” Berkson echoes, not quite morosely, the feeling of that praise on keys. This Cole Porter classic, along with the jazzier “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” of George a& Ira Gershwin, drops like a stone in the liquid of its surroundings. The cantorial “Ahavas Oylam” and “Hulyet, Hulyet” (a Yiddisdh folk song from the Polish-born poet Mordekhai Gebirtig) betray the capacity of Berkson’s chest voice. Whether floating on a warm wave of organ or nestled a cappella, it needs no mirrors to know its expressions. Berkson’s English lyrics to “Der Leiermann” from Franz Schubert’s Winterreise provide a fairytale turned sour by the heat of retelling, superseded only by the touch of “Goodbye Friend No.2,” which brings the album full oval, not to where it started but to where it will speak.
This is certainly an eclectic program, so those on the fence about buying it would so well to sample it first. Oylam fits snugly beside Sidsel Endresen’s So I Write, ever its idiosyncratic sibling. Yet in spite of the lines one might draw from Berkson to such iconoclasts as Lydia Lunch, Diamanda Galas, Maggie Nicols, and even Shelley Hirsch, this is not a game of shadows. It is, rather, a diary that recognizes our mortal limitations.
A perfect one for a rainy day, for it illuminates the rain that drips in all of us.
(To hear samples of Oylam, click here.)