Vocalist and composer Jewlia Eisenberg didn’t just record albums documenting a set of tunes. She created entire worlds. Working mostly with her band Charming Hostess, which has featured an evolving cast of women vocalists over the past quarter-century, she plunged into esoteric topics and turned intellectual and spiritual ferment into soul-brimming songs. Whether setting inscriptions gleaned from ancient Babylonian Jewish amulets on The Bowls Project or detailing the fraught intellectual and emotional frisson between doomed philosopher Walter Benjamin and Bolshevik theater director Asja Lācis on Trilectic, Eisenberg’s music thrusts you into a raging party you didn’t know was happening.
Released 14 months after her death from a rare autoimmune disorder at the age of 50 on March 11, 2021, The Ginzburg Geography explores the physical and emotional terrain traversed by Italian anti-fascist intellectuals Leone and Natalia Ginzburg, setting the couple’s letters and writings to a gloriously diverse array of musical styles. A gifted improviser with a bone-deep feel for the blues, Eisenberg draws on Italian folk songs and anti-fascist anthems as well as Balkan grooves and klezmer modes. The project features many of Eisenberg’s closest musical collaborators, including clarinetist Jason Ditzian, vocalist Cynthia Taylor, and cellist/vocalist Marika Hughes, who stepped in with guitarist Max Baloian to produce the album after Eisenberg’s death. Drummer Jason Levis and Dan Cantrell’s myriad contributions on accordion, harmonium, and organ fill in the ever-shifting textures.
What’s most striking about the music is the way that the timbre of Eisenberg’s singing tracks with the Ginzburgs’ harrowing plight. She recorded her vocals in her final months after emerging from a four-week coma, and at times her voice shows traces of her travails. But even as her body was failing her, she retained much of her protean power and expressive range. Charming Hostess has served up another singular repast.