Judith Berkson’s second album is, in an old sense, remarkably queer: her voice, keyboards, and silence make vivid and strange music. Oylam begins and ends with the lovely solo piano pieces “Goodbye Friend #1” and “Goodbye Friend #2”, gaining maximum impact from careful, minimal input. In between, Berkson puts her stamp on modern classical, avant-jazz, folk, and Jewish influences.
Berkson’s originals, such as the oddly-named “Clives” and “Fallen Innocent Wandering Thieves”, are spectacular forays into difficult territory wherein her voice and electric piano almost double each other. She can sing at a bewildering machine gun pace, or in slower intense warbles (as on the fantastic “Ahavas Oylam”) which are almost as emotionally brilliant as the Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria (or the mysterious feet of Dimitar Berbatov). Her version of Franz Schubert’s “Die Leiermann” is fabulous, combining the doom-laden sensibility of Nico with something akin to a Vegas lounge—albeit one in a world where classical music is the most popular idiom. Berkson knows drama and also how to disassemble and rebuild a song to give it new life, hence her takes on Cole Porter’s “All of You” and George & Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” combine charm with unpredictability and land somewhere between Brion Gysin’s cut-ups and absurd musical theater. This fragmented mosaic style reminds me of the found partial shopping list become sacred text in Walter M. Miller’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Oylam is bemusing, but has a melodic and emotional impact which increases with every listen: the reverse of falling in love with a song and playing it until it is emptied out. Judith Berkson has the chops and charisma to revel in the studio expertise afforded any artist recording on ECM, the industry standard for clarity and quality.