The term “perfect storm” is overused these days, but it comes to mind listening to the world-spanning skills of violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz on St. John’s new album Shiksa. The duo present new and scarily inventive arrangements, playful and sometimes indeed stormy, of traditional tunes from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East, many with Jewish roots (whence the rather too-silly album title).
On her new album, released on her own Ancalagon label, St. John displays nearly superhuman technique as well as a vast appetite to learn, assimilate and advance music of many cultures. (The last time I saw her perform was at a concert of Astor Piazzolla tangos with the Pablo Ziegler Quartet in Central Park in 2012, and the one album of hers I owned prior to Shiksa is of Bach Violin Concertos.)
The “perfect storm” metaphor arises from the talents of St. John and Herskowitz (whose work here is not that of an accompanist but of a full creative partner) applied to the current revival of interest in Balkan music and “world music” in general among both classical and pop musicians, from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project to Gogol Bordello’s “Gypsy punk.”
With all their dazzling technique, St. John and Herskowitz bring a thoroughly human touch to all these pieces, without which they wouldn’t work, for the source material is loaded with emotion. Created by an impressively accomplished and eclectic assortment of international composers, whose mere names – David Ludwig, Milica Paranosic, Yuri Boguinia, etc. – suggest the broad range of backgrounds, the arrangements call upon all the imaginative skills of the musicians. And St. John and Herskowitz (who is also a noted jazz musician) deliver so fully that the music seems at times to spill outside the confines of whatever sound system they’re played on.
There’s a very wide variety of moods, from John Kameel Farah’s gorgeous expansion of a simple Levantine folk tune called “Ah, Ya Zayn” and Boguinia’s modernist, deliciously off-kilter deconstruction of the famous Jewish song “Misirlou” to Serouj Kradjian’s unabashedly romantic setting of the Armenian song “Sari Siroun Yar” and Ludwig’s setting for solo violin of “Five Ladino Songs” from the Sephardic Jewish tradition.
A few more familiar tunes appear: Herskowitz’s own, astoundingly transformed 7/4-time version of “Hava Nagila,” a punningly titled take on the “Czárdás,” Gene Pritzker’s take on “Moscow Nights.” These smart choices provide a grounding for the more obscure but equally compelling pieces.
Listening to St. John’s fiery shredding in the little Serbian tune “Kolo,” the improvisatory Romanian dance “Oltenian Hora,” or “Ca La Breaza” (derived from a Romanian hammered dulcimer tune), I can’t help thinking what a popular sensation a musician with her talent and flair would be in another time. Fortunately, St. John has long possessed the skill and spirit to make her own way as both a classical artist and a world-music luminary. With the ideal performing partner and inspired arrangers, this Shiksa is a storm of perfection.