INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Clarinettist Oran Etkin (Pizza Express Jazz Club 30th Nov/1st Dec)

Oran Etkin

Clarinettist ORAN ETKIN plays the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London on 30 November and 1 December in what will be his first UK gigs since the release of What’s New: Re-imagining Benny Goodman, his new album on the Motéma label. Etkin explains his inspirations behind the project to Stephen Graham.

It’s a sharp change of tack for Oran Etkin in his new “re-imagining” of swing era jazz legend Benny Goodman. But maybe it’s not so surprising as early jazz proved a big inspiration for Etkin as a young player. “The thing that has always moved me most in music is when somebody plays honestly, when you can almost tell someone’s personality by the way they play,” he says.

“I moved to the US from Israel when I was four years old and I grew up around Israeli and classical music. But my life was changed forever when I heard Louis Armstrong when I was nine. For the next five years all I listened to was Louis, early jazz and New Orleans musicians. I went down to New Orleans several times as a child and got a chance to play and be mentored a bit by the great Tuba Fats down there. Later I got into much more modern jazz through teachers such as George Garzone and Yusef Lateef and also modern classical music. I’ve also been working with West African musicians for almost two decades now. When I pick up my horn or pick up my pen to write, somehow all these aspects of who I am now show up in my music. I don’t think about it or try to force it but they are all in there somehow. I think especially no matter how modern the music I play is, there is an element of Louis Armstrong and the thing that first attracted me to music when I heard him — the lyrical sense of melody floating over the fray. I see in Benny Goodman many of the same influences coming out in his own personal way. He also fell in love with the music coming out of New Orleans in his formative years. He definitely brings in elements of Jewish music and classical music and the way I hear it, he transfers that lyrical sense that Louis had into the clarinet and makes it sing and soar.”

In “re-imagining” Goodman Etkin avoided a route he definitely didn’t want to take: “It was clear to me from the beginning that the one thing I shouldn’t attempt to do is to sound like Benny Goodman! That is a recipe for failure since he was being himself and interacting with the world during that time. I wanted to take inspiration from what he did and his spirit and use that as a catalyst for me to express myself and empower the other musicians in my band to be themselves. It’s really about our love for him and for the things that are at the root of his music and expressing that love through our music.”

That clear in his mind Etkin looked to Goodman’s 1930s trio and quartet with Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton for the heart of the album. “I am fascinated by what Goodman did with his trio with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa and quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton. The way I hear it, he is flipping the model of the traditional New Orleans ensemble by suddenly having the clarinet take the lyrical lead just like Louis Armstrong or another trumpet or cornet would traditionally. Then the vibes enter to dance around the clarinet like a clarinet would traditionally dance around the trumpet in the traditional New Orleans setting! This was the band that broke the race barrier in music and advanced the cause of coexistence and mutual understanding. Of course musicians of mixed race had always played together, but there was a taboo about black and white musicians performing together. Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa bravely broke that taboo in 1935 and faced many challenges yet they continued and changed the course of society.”

The clarinettist sees Goodman’s jazz in a greater cultural context and feels jazz still amounts to a cathartic force for change all these decades on. “Yes, definitely – music has a huge role to create societal change on a deep personal human level. My previous album was called Gathering Light because it is inspired by tours I did in Indonesia, Japan, China, Israel and Europe in which I let the interactions with local musicians and cultures become a part of the creative process. I find that music is the quickest way to bring out the light in people and connect on a human level. There are many forces right now bringing out the darkness, the hatred and fear, within people. It is much easier to control people through fear than hope. But music is a celebration of life and love and it reaches people at the deepest level. I find that it is perhaps the best way to combat the darkness of these times in a truly meaningful way.”

One of the most interesting parts of What’s New is the thread of ‘Sing, sing, sing’ that runs like a leitmotif through the album. Etkin says: “‘Sing Sing Sing’ is Goodman’s most popular song and it’s also one of his most ‘modern’ songs — an early precursor to modal jazz in a way! Also it served as a vessel for the Jewish influences and it was the tune on which Goodman’s band was able to open up and take its time developing freely in a way that was very rare and fresh at the time. Because of that openness, I find many ways to look at it in a fresh new light! The opening track, ‘Prelude’ plays with some of the motifs from Benny Goodman’s arrangement of this Louis Prima tune, but in a very pastoral way, re-framing them completely. I feel like this sets the tone for the whole album, which really plays with expectations – using the familiar as a way to explore the beauty of the unknown!”

For the London shows Etkin’s line-up is similar to the album’s. “I’ll be bringing a great band with Steve Nelson on vibes, Helen Sung on piano, Ziv Ravitz on drums and guest vocalist Charenee Wade. Charenee and I have been playing together for years and she is one of the most soulful singers of my generation in New York right now. Steve Nelson of course is at once incredibly swinging and rhythmically driving yet harmonically very open. Playing with him always pushes me into new directions! Helen Sung is incredible as well and has that ability to go into an absolutely swinging stride feel and yet open it up completely when the music is ready for it. And Ziv and I have toured a bunch recently with my Gathering Light project. He makes me feel like my instrument is in dialogue with the drums, almost like they’re another melodic instrument! It will be a very fun night full of surprises!”

Booking details: Pizza Express Jazz Club 30th Nov/1st Dec

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