Judith Berkson

Oylam

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American-born Judith Berkson is a bit of an odd bird even for the ECM label, although her predecessors Annette Peacock, Robin Holcomb, or even the quirky Patricia Barber hold similar values and precepts. She plays lovely, understated piano, sings in quirky unison with her keyboard notes, switches between acoustic and electric keyboards, and even covers standards in her own inimitable way. There's bewilderment, underlying frustration or even a frayed nerve in the music she performs, as she addresses issues of the heart, the basic nature of the human spirit, and a surreal vision of the future. A compelling solo effort recorded in Udine, Italy, Berkson plays not as if her life depended on it, but as if the world needs to tone its act down and pay more attention to the voice of the meek, the disinherited, and the underprivileged. Songs like "Inside Good Times" and "Fallen Innocent Wandering Thieves" are Berkson signatures, where she bounces off walls like a squash ball with her tandem lyrics and piano. She's also quite fond of the Wurlitzer electric piano, bringing out a back and forth macabre or labyrinth feeling during "Burnt" or aside an original word play on Franz Schubert's "Der Leiermann." Ballads, two eulogies, a liturgy (most of this music is based on Berkson's religious background), somber treatments of show tunes, deliberate, even playful or minimalist chord progressions, and wordless vocals are also within Berkson's purview. It seems she can do just about anything except play it straight and narrow, making this a fascinating and sometimes disarming musical project that proves one of the bolder contemporary ECM recordings, but on a completely different, subsumed level.

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