Genes and genres
by Sandor Slomovits
I'm no geneticist, but I was not surprised to hear that Natalia Zukerman, the daughter of Pinchas and Eugenia Zukerman, is a musician. Having parents who are both world-class musicians would certainly skew your odds. Can you say "genetic predisposition"?
However, Zukerman's is no case of musical cloning. Same genes? Yes. Same genres? Nope. While it may be true that as the twig is bent, the tree inclines, Zukerman's bent has been to create music that is quite a departure from the classical style of her parents. As she says about her "Song for Ramblin' Jack" (Elliott), her inclination has been to be "a part of this grand tradition of troubadours that is, for me, as much about my own family of traveling musicians as a shared American history."
Her music embodies both those grand traditions. You can hear the classical training and discipline in her striking and inventive guitar work. This lady has serious chops! You can also hear the whole range of American roots music, blues, country, jazz, and folk in her songs and singing. And speaking of singing, it's another area in which she's diverged from her pedigree. Though her sister, Arianna, is an opera singer, Zukerman's voice is closer to early Bonnie Raitt and is perfectly suited to convey the whole range of her writing from the sardonic ("Like a house wants to be haunted/Is this what you wanted?") to the evocative ("When winter goes it's like a toothache that finally subsides") to the mysterious ("When milk, ice, and sugar get together,/They whisper secrets you should never tell").
Zukerman's last CD, though a studio recording, had the feel of a live album. It was just her voice and solo guitar "no overdubs, no do-overs," as she wrote in the liner notes. The sound was intimate, introspective, and cozy. Her new one, Brand New Frame, which she will unveil at her CD release concert at the Ark on Friday, April 18,
is her first with producer and guitar slinger Willy Porter. Here, backed by a full band, she shows she can also rock exuberantly. In the title song she sings, "Same old picture in a brand new frame,/And they unveiled it just last week and no one came. Shame./But no one's listening and no one cares."
Though she's been on the singer-songwriter screen for only four years, no way is that an apt description of her music, or of her audiences' reactions to her performances. During her set at the Ann Arbor
Folk Festival in January, someone shouted from Hill Auditorium's balcony, "You're phenomenal!" It is an assessment more and more people are likely to come to share. Zukerman's music commands your attention and affection.
[Review published April 2008]