Oran Etkin brings a childlike wonder to the clarinet, which is not just a passing comment in his case; the clarinetist and saxophonist has a school that teaches smalls kids up to age ten about music in an open and effective way through his Timbalooloo method. But his jazz CD masquerading as children’s music called Wake Up Clarinet showed us that music doesn’t have to be elementary to connect with kids and don’t have to be so serious to connect with adults.
Gathering Light, out April 8, 2014 by Motéma Music, is ostensibly his return to grownup music, but don’t think for a moment he put the kid inside him aside for his third release. Heck, he even revives “All I Really Want To Is Dance!” from the Wake Up album, his clarinet as jovial as before, jousting playfully with Ben Allison’s funky acoustic bass lines.
Alright, that might be the closest he gets to Timbalooloo on his latest record, but it seems he’s never out of the educating mode and doing the educating in an inviting way. I recall from his first album Kelenia, an informed, wonderful “lecture” on African diaspora by way of Louis Armstrong. Gathering Light builds on that, and does so, ironically, by deploying less in the way of African musicians and instruments, though by retaining Beninian guitarist Lionel Loueke, Etkin has plenty of overseas culture on hand. Loueke brings a bushel of his African heritage to “Gratitude;” he sings a West African scat and plays guitar like a kora; Etkin finds the right spot within all this for his bass clarinet, right alongside trombonist Curtis Fowlkes.
About half the time, though, Etkin plays within the context of a trio, with the dazzling Nasheet Waits on drums, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed to take a trip all around the world. “Gambang Suling” is an adaptation of an Indonesian folk song, and Etkin’s bass clarinet over Waits’ loose-limbed funky gait gives it a klezmer flavor. The three go from festive to solemn for the old Israeli song “Shirim Ad Kan.” Allison carries the tune well while Etkin plays bass clarinet with uncanny tenderness. They push modern jazz to its limits on the on-and-off chase of “Tony’s Dance,” and wind up in New Orleans to offer a tender take on a Louis Armstrong favorite, “When It’s Sleepy time Down South.”
The full five-piece band performs the dynamic “Taxi Dance,” where Waits’ constantly shifting cadence keeps the song on track; Etkin’s clarinet takes us through the sharp twists and turns of a New York cabbie. “Guangzhou Taxi” sounds like a continuation of that other “taxi” song, but Loueke’s out of the ordinary distorted guitar solo is the song’s highlight. Loueke also carries out a cliché free solo on the relaxed, jagged groove “Scattering Light,” performed by a quartet featuring Etkin on tenor sax.
Oran Etkin’s Gathering Light is a world music tour that relies less on exotic sounds and more on the fertile mind of its leader.
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