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Judith Berkson - Oylam

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Artist: Judith Berkson

Album: Oylam

Label: ECM

Review date: Jul. 8, 2010

Drawing inspirations and techniques from diverse streams including jazz, the Jewish liturgical tradition, and late-romantic and modern art music, Brooklyn- based composer, singer and pianist Judith Berkson has made a unique and intimate musical world. There’s a quiet intensity and poised integrity to her work on this record; a close-up honesty — at times even a rawness of emotion — arcing underneath what might sometimes seem a cool and arty surface.

The album opener, “Goodbye Friend No.1,” sets a mood with introspective and elegiac solo piano. It’s a dark and autumnal piece, distilling late-romantic harmonic ideas and filtering them through Second Viennese School starkness and brevity. “Brute” follows, beginning as an impressionistic and crepuscular ballad, finding its way into the ostinato that underpins a dark little minimalist pop song, eventually sneaking up on a Bill Evans- style foray with breakneck-paced displaced rhythms. “Inside Good Times” introduces a darting, pulsing and chiming Fender Rhodes, dancing with a vocal that somehow successfully blends cool jazz intimacy with art song technique and post-modern conceptualism.

Berkson’s take on Cole Porter’s “All of You” is simply arresting. Her straight-ahead yet supple piano exploration of the melody and chord changes anchors a dislocated vocal that brings even darker shadows to an already shady and edgy love-drenched ballad.

Indeed, shadow and light interact with intensity in much of this music. Poet Mordecai Gebertig’s Yiddish song “Hulyet, Hulyet” is a stunning example of this: double-tracked and a capella, Berkson’s reading of the song seems to convey both deep sorrow and a vulnerable, shimmering hopefulness.

The record contains a few moments of extreme chromaticism and vocal acrobatics that might grate upon some ears. Overall, however, Oylam reveals a deeply engaged and accomplished expression that is always eloquent — and often quietly heart-rending.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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