Pianist Judith Berkson: A Journey Across Genres


If genetics count for anything, Judith Berkson’s career choice was foreordained. Her father is a cantor, her mother a pianist and, with her two sisters and one brother, the entire family formed a band that entertained at synagogues and JCCs in the Chicago area as she was growing up.

Berkson has kept at least one foot in her father’s camp, serving as a cantor and teaching at Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation — Kehilat Shir Ami. But as she got older, she began exploring a dazzlingly wide range of other musical traditions. The most recent product of that exploration is a new CD, “Oylam,” on the fabled ECM label, which the singer-keyboardist-composer is launching with a gig at Joe’s Pub on May 24.

Sitting on a couch in her living room in Park Slope, the 32-year-old Berkson is animated, even effervescent. The late music critic Gene Lees observed that jazz musicians usually speak the way they play, and Berkson’s conversation follows a similar line to her musical compositions and improvisations — words tumbling over one another, rhythm patterns stopping abruptly or changing gears in unexpected ways.

She started singing serious music at 3, with her father leading her through brachot and liturgical music, added piano at 5, and has known all along that music would be her career, her life.

“I knew that from an early age, that I would do something in the arts,” she says. “It wasn’t a choice. It just was.”

Growing up she heard mostly cantorial music and classical, so when she went to New England Conservatory of Music, she was like the proverbial kid in the candy shop.

“I was in the classical department at NEC,” Berkson says, “but I was interested in a lot of things — 12-tone, jazz, klezmer, new music. People there didn’t know quite what to make of me, because I was taking classes all over the place there. My degree is in classical, though, which gave me a strong foundation.”

A strong foundation is a good thing to have when your experimentation takes you to some of the musical places Berkson has been. For example, one of the influences that runs RUN throughout her new album is the microtonal music that she learned from Joe Maneri.

Maneri, who died last August, was a legendary figure in the new music world, a jazz saxophonist, student of Joseph Schmid (himself a student of Alban Berg), composer, teacher and improviser who had not only mastered a wide range of Mediterranean ethnic musics, but who was a pioneer of microtonal music — for Western art music, a radically different way of writing and listening based on small intervals.

For Berkson, Maneri’s class at NEC was a revelation.

“You have microtones in many folk musics and especially in cantorial music,” she says. “When I took his class, it felt like an extension of what I was already doing.”

Her two solo recordings, “Oylam” and the earlier “Lu-Lu,” were part of that continuing process of extension. Each is a quietly galvanic display of astounding skills heard over a range of music that includes standards like “All of Me” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” a Schubert lied (with her own translation of the lyrics), and a plethora of inventive, off-beat originals. In the new set, she adds to the mix her own setting of “Ahavas Oylam” and an astonishing rendition of Mordechai Gebertig’s “Hulyet, Hulyet” in which she sings the poignant melody a cappella, with overdubs that allow her to sing multi-part harmonies with herself.

The new set is truly a bravura performance, but Berkson’s genre-crossing doesn’t feel like a circus stunt. She brings something different to each genre, yet there is a single, controlling intelligence at work that unites all the pieces into an impressive tapestry. Her originals are quirky and witty, and she turns the standards inside out. But the Schubert and the two Jewish pieces are treated with gravitas; even her setting of “Ahavas Oylam,” while partaking fully of her cutting-edge mind-set, is deeply respectful.

Asked about the paradox, she is almost blunt.

“The thought of taking that music ‘out’ doesn’t appeal to me,” she says. “Maybe these pieces function in the album as a palate cleanser, something a bit more expected, between the other ones.”

When asked about her congregational work, Berkson says, “It’s so familiar, it’s like breathing. It’s a part of myself that’s always there. It’s the only thing I don’t sweat over [as a performer]; it’s totally natural.”

Maybe it’s genetic.

Judith Berkson will be perform solo at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St.) at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 24 to celebrate the release of her new CD, “Oylam” on ECM Records. For information, call (212) 539-8777 or go to www.joespub.com. Her previous CD, “Lu-Lu” is available from www.cdbaby.com or www.peacock-recordings.com.