Spreading it around, together

Oran Etkin is in the lineup of the forthcoming winter version of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (February 9-11).

Musician Oran Etkin (photo credit: JOHN ABBOTT)
Musician Oran Etkin
(photo credit: JOHN ABBOTT)
Oran Etkin is one well-rounded musician. Running an eye over his bio reveals that the thirty-something, Israel- born, US-bred reedman has accrued training, as well as bandstand and studio time, in numerous areas of musical and cultural creation.
He is in the lineup of the forthcoming winter version of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (February 9-11), where he will play with a high-profile quartet of drummer Matt Wilson, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and pianist Adam Birnbaum.
IT ALL started for Etkin as a child, with one of the pioneers of modern jazz, the saxophonist and bebop founding father Charlie Parker. But the youngster was not drawn just to the compelling fire power of the art form – he was instinctively grabbed by the emotions the music evoked.
“I remember when I was a small child, I danced to a record by Charlie Parker in my bedroom,” he says. “I was in a good mood and I started to dance. The next day, I cried to the same music.”
That is a lesson that informs his approach to music – and life – to this day.
His Kelenia album, which came out on the Motema label in 2009, exudes positive energies and a sense of abiding love that carried over to his charming child-oriented Wake Up Clarinet! release, which came out the following year and forms part of his “Timbalooloo” project for the junior crowd.
“It’s not always happiness that comes out of my music,” he observes. “There are all sorts of feelings in there. I’d call it the feelings of life. At the end of the day, life is sometimes hard and sometimes joyful, and other things too.”
That certainly comes across in Etkin’s music.
“The music can draw something out of my soul, whatever I’m feeling at the time,” he continues. “You can feel different emotions in Charlie Parker’s music, and also in Jewish music.”
The latter is a given, and the eclectic range of sounds that infuse Etkin’s output takes in Jewish textures, as well the music of western Africa, Arabic material and the music of China, Indonesia and other cultures. It all flows through him seamlessly and naturally, part of which he attributes to extensive traveling, which allows him to not only hear different genres of music firsthand, but also hear them in their natural habitat, which gives him insight into the social and cultural subtexts.
BESIDES REACHING out to imbibe the sounds of societies around the world, Etkin is strongly connected with the grassroots of jazz.
He started playing piano at five, following in the footsteps of an older sibling.
While his brother eventually lost interest, his own curiosity about music only grew. A couple of years down the road, he tried his hand at the violin – although that didn’t last long. But at nine, he took up the saxophone, and then guitar. He is now proficient on all three instruments, although the saxophone, as well as the clarinet, are his principal means of artistic expression.
His jazzy interest sparked when, at the age of nine, he was offered a glimpse into two very different worlds and made his choice.
“My parents bought our first CD player, and they also bought two CDs, one by Mozart and one by Louis Armstrong,” he relates, saying he opted for the infectious rhythms and irrepressible energies of the latter.
“Louis Armstrong really grabbed me, and between the ages of nine and 14 I bought every CD of his music I could find,” he continues. “I got into his music and [that of] all the musicians from New Orleans, and the jazz of the 1930s and ’40s.”
That newfound love was enhanced by trips he made to the southern US city together with his parents.
“Being there really impacted on me powerfully. There was someone in New Orleans called Tuba Fats,” he says, referring to Anthony Lacen, a legendary New Orleans tuba player who died in 2004 at the age of 53. “He heard me play and he invited me to play with him. He was a mentor to me.”
Etkin’s powerful attraction to Armstrong’s music and his fortunate confluence with Tuba Fats appear to be something of a recurrent theme in his life and musical growth. He has always found a way to get to grips with new sounds from different cultures at the basement level, and has a highly physical, corporeal and sensorial attitude toward upping his musical ante. This unfettered philosophy soon led him to head for the source.
After studying jazz, classical music and some Jewish music as a teenager, Etkin headed for the continent that spawned jazz.
“Africa came into my life when I was 19,” he explains. “It feels that this was an important part of my education, and it happened for me at an age when an experience like that impacts powerfully on your character.”
He discovered the intoxicating magic of the music of western Africa.
“I went to Mali when I was about 20 or 21,” he says. “I did a dance class at college.
The teacher was also a drummer. It goes together. Someone told him I played music and he took me into his group.”
One thing led to another.
“The teacher’s uncle was a kora [African harp] player,” he continues, “so I played with him. And he had a relative who was a famous guitarist in Mali, so I went to stay with his family in Mali for a month, so I started playing on that scene.”
A couple of years or so later, while he was doing a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, his path crossed that of acclaimed klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, who was a teacher there.
Etkin duly immersed himself in the world of Jewish music.
“That was something I had always loved, but David really introduced to the music in a deep and meaningful way,” he relates.
OVER THE years, Etkin has encountered a wide range of cultural baggage, and the sounds that go with them. He studied both western classical and Arabic music at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem, traveled to the Czech Republic to play with Roma musicians, and spent time in Indonesia getting a handle on the local sounds. All of this comes out in his jazz work, offering him numerous directions to explore in his improvisatory efforts.
For his forthcoming Eilat gig, Etkin will return to an earlier phase of the jazz time line and present his “What’s New? Re-imagining Benny Goodman” project, which is centered on the captivating sounds and rhythms of the seminal American swing clarinetist who ruled the roost on dance floors in the United States and Europe in the 1930s and ’40s.
“The instrumentation of my band is a homage to Goodman’s lineup of the 1930s, with Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton,” he says referring to the celebrated pianist, drummer and vibraphonist of yesteryear, with Etkin playing clarinet.
“There’s no bass in the band,” he states. “Since then, I don’t know if there have been many lineups like that.”
There’s a more far-reaching message inherent in the original band personnel.
“It was the first jazz band that had black and white musicians playing together,” Etkin remarks. “That happened during the Great Depression, when people were also being pushed away from each other. This was a band that brought people together.”
Amen to that.
For tickets and more information: *9066, www.eventim.co.il/ and redseajazz.co.il