“Shiksa” – Lara St. John, violin/ Matt Herskowitz, piano – Ancalagon multichannel SACD ANC143, 64:26 *****:

The ever-inventive Lara St. John has consistently confounded the traditional recording career path for artists of her caliber. Few there are that start their own record companies from scratch, embrace the highest technological advances in sound recording, and present such outstanding production values in every release. Not one to be told what to do, she records what she likes when she likes, whether Bach or Polka, and is not content with simply rehashing all the old works of the past (much as some people, like myself, would love to see her do). Mind you, she does play many of the warhorses in concert, but is more interested in expanding the violinist repertory instead of simply creating the nth version of the most familiar. (By the way, Shiksa is Yiddish for a Gentile young girl…Ed.)

This time she sets her sights on two different concepts melded into one brilliant one. She has taken music discovered in the middle east, the Balkans, Armenia, and other places, songs, ditties, known folk tunes, Jewish, Gypsy, you name it, and asked composer friends to set them for violin and piano. So what we have is not a Bartok-like compendium of native folk songs, but instead olden and golden melodies of common yet dissimilar origins that show their beauties through the imagination and talent of living and breathing composers. Mix in the talents of jazz pianist Matt Herskowitz, and you have the perfect storm of scintillating and passionate close-to-the-roots native song with a breathless improvisatory feel.

This isn’t jazz by any means, so don’t get the wrong idea, even though I would not doubt for a moment that improvisation was taking place during the recording; but it certainly has a spontaneous feeling to it, even in completely composed pieces like the Five Ladino Songs arranged by David Ludwig and based on Jewish music which St. John discovered in Istanbul. Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn shows the exquisite side of this album, a wonderful tune accented in the traditional Klezmer style that St. John spent time assimilating. And St. John’s own Bar Fight, a traditional Romanian hammer dulcimer tune, is clothed in the smoke and saloon smells of the old West, though this is a far cry from a simple parody—it’s terrific.

I could go on, but with every track a unique and utterly delightful listening experience there is little point. Suffice it to say that the St. John / Herskowitz partnership is a dynamic and innovative one, and the commitment required to fully sell these gems is forcefully present in each artist. The sound, needless to say, is resonant, wide, and nicely spaced among the channels.


1. KENNEDY: Czardashian Rhapsody
2. ST. JOHN: Variaiuni Bar Fight
3. Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn
4. Kolo
5. Oltenian Hora
7. FARAH: Ah Ya Zayn
8. BOGUINIA: Misirlouri
9. KRADJIAN: Sari Siroun Yar
10. HERSKOWITZ: Nagilara
11. LUDWIG: Five Ladino Songs
12. PRITSKER: Moscow
13. PSATHAS: The Pain Will Find Us
14. ATKINSON: Ca La Breaza

—Steven Ritter