Inspired by tours in Indonesia, China, Japan, Israel and Europe, Oran Etkin's brilliant new album, Gathering Light,to be released on Motema Music on April 8, 2014, and featuring Oran Etkin-bass clarinet, Ben Allison-bass, Nasheet Waits-drums, Lionel Loueke-guitar/vocals and Curtis Fowlkes-trombone, interweaves melodies and rhythms from these regions with Etkin's fresh compositions. Etkin's
music emanates from an openness to discovery in the world, in himself and within his music. On Gathering Light Etkin digs deep, taking inspiration from the depths of the jazz tradition that he grew up with, the New Orleans roots that inspired him to play, and ancient sources from around the world, to create venturesome music that pushes the art form in new directions.
From the opening bass clarinet notes of "Gambang Suling" (Etkin's homage to Indonesian musicians who taught him this folk song), to the tender closing notes of "When It's Sleep Time Down South" ("played in thanks for the man who first sparked my love of music, Louis Armstrong," said Etkin), this adventurous, intrepid artist reveals a depth of musicianship, character, and gratitude that is massively appealing.
Two years ago, Oran Etkin's music took him back to his birthplace of Israel. He wanted to share the beauty of the country with the Malian balafonist in his band at the time, Balla Kouyate, just as he was shown the beauty of Mali when he toured there, so on a day off they headed to Jerusalem. Etkin explains, "there I heard a story, first told 500 years ago, that has stuck with me since. It tells of vessels filled with divine light that were said to have emanated from the eyes of the first primordial man, long before humans existed. The light was so strong that the vessels broke. Their shards scattered remnants of this soulful light into the darkest corners of our material world. The story poses this challenge to anyone who listens: in order to mend the world, it says we must gather these scattered points of light and bring them together. Etkin was drawn to this story as a focal point for his brilliant new album, Gathering Light, because it puts the fixing of the world in the hands of people, not in an external savior, and it says that the way to make the world better is to have the light of each culture come together and make something beautiful. "This resonates with my feeling of not staying within my own cultural surroundings, but bringing who I am, and the culture I grew up with, into new situations with people who are different than me and finding something beautiful together," explained Etkin. This idea is also in harmony with lessons that Etkin learned from his mentors Yusef Lateef, Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, Dave Liebman, George Garzone (and others), that the blues is not just a musical form, but an approach to life, and that this was a music that grew out of the human instinct to find and gather light in our darkest moments.
Etkin elaborated, "I didn't know quite what to make of this story when I first heard it. I continued on with my tour, and in the following months I was fortunate enough to be invited to perform in beautiful places like Indonesia, Japan, China, Belgium, Germany and France. In my travels, I saw the darkness of poverty, injustice and hate, but I also saw many sparks of light. I collaborated with local musicians whenever I could, learning some of their musical traditions and sharing my own music. This openness and interaction made me discover things within myself as well, affecting the music I created for my New York based trio and for my new album, Gathering Light."
"My music is always simply an expression of who I am at my core, and if I play and write music honestly, all of my experiences and my influences come out through the music, I do not need to try to evoke certain influences or intentionally mix them together, they are simply there every time I pick up my horn or my pencil. As my mentor, the late Yusef Lateef would say, it is Autophisiopsychic music," said Etkin. "Well having said that, I suppose there is just one thing I like better than honest autobiographical music, and that is music that is co-biographical. I am really very honored and blessed to have each one of these wonderful musicians in my life and to be able to tell our story together in real time through improvisation or spontaneous co-composition."
Etkin first played with bassist Ben Allison when Allison subbed in Etkin's Kelenia project (a band he has had for ten years with West African musicians with whom he recorded his debut CD for Motema). "We found ourselves in constant musical dialogue, finding a lot of playfulness in the space between the beats. We did a few duo and trio concerts after that, and we eventually decided to invite Nasheet Waits to fill out the trio. Nasheet is someone I have known for a long time, and his sense of groove and openness fits right into this common language that Ben and I had found together," said Etkin. The two guests on the album are both long-time collaborators and have appeared on previous albums of Etkin's (Lionel plays on Kelenia and Curtis on Wake Up, Clarinet!). Etkin's elaborates, "Lionel Loueke and I have played together since I moved to the city back in 2002. I had already been playing a lot in the West African scene for five years at that point, and I was excited to find a partner who has deep roots in that scene but also appreciates a very open approach to making music. Curtis Fowlkes was also one of the first people I played with when I moved to NYC as sidemen in a project called Antilles Connection, and I have always continued to love playing with him. His sound is so guttural and raw and always hits me and pushes me to put my all into every note.
The recording sessions for Gathering Light began with "Gratitude". Etkin explains, "we try to start every performance with this tune to ground ourselves in this feeling of gratitude, out of which all other feelings can spring forth. In this song I hear the joy of reuniting with two of my longtime friends and collaborators, Lionel Loueke and Curtis Fowlkes, together with my trio of Ben Allison and Nasheet Waits. As the bass clarinet rubs with Curtis' raw trombone and Lionel's distinct African-tinged guitar, the sound reminds me of the sweet polyphony of the New Orleans music I grew up listening to, reimagined in a very different context."
Gathering Light opens with "Gambang Suling", a song from Indonesia. "I toured there twice recently and got to work with some traditional musicians. The first time I went, I had a day off and I went two hours out of Jakarta to a town called Bandung, where they have a center called Sang Udjo Anklung. There they have about 500 students from toddlers up to adults studying and building instruments just out of bamboo, including the Anklung, the Gambang and the Suling. The next time I came to Indonesia, they invited me to do a concert at their beautiful outdoor theater as part of my tour. The Gambang is a bamboo percussion instrument like a xylophone, and the Suling is a bamboo flute. The song is about their sounds and how beautiful they are, but it is said that the hidden spiritual meaning is that the Gambang is like the heart and the Suling is like the voice and if we tune our voice to our heart so they play together, then that is the ideal way to live", explained Etkin.
"Taxi Dance" is about the many crazy taxi rides Etkin and his cohorts have had touring the world, and how in a short cab ride, in just a few quick turns, you can find yourself in a whole other world. This song is also part of the "Tony" story, expressing Tony's character (see "Tony's Dance"). "Guangzhou Taxi" explores the same theme, with a bit more intensity, expressing the craziness of the city.
"Shirim Ad Kan" is a beautiful song from Israel that Etkin has heard his entire life. It is based on a poem by a father who lost his son in a war and "shirim ad kan" means all the songs until here and now . . . the singing of the beauty of life that they had shared until that point. "The words I always remembered were 'people more beautiful than me and you, the earth has taken'. It is one of the saddest things when a father must bury his son, and it is all too often the result of unnecessary wars. It is important to experience the love and positivity of love while we are together, and hopefully, let that be stronger than the fear and hatred that too often lead to wars.
"Takeda" (Homesick Blues) is based on an eight-bar traditional melody that Etkin learned while on tour in Japan. He explains, "I was invited to play a special concert with a band that the producer formed with Keiko Matsui on piano, a shamisen player and a Taiko drummer! Very interesting instrumentation and we hadn't met until two days before the concert. They taught me this traditional Japanese song that dates back to a time when there was a caste system of sorts. Sometimes parents in the lower caste had to sell off their daughters to work for the upper caste. This song is sung by a girl from the lower caste taking care of a baby in the upper caste, and singing to her so that she will fall asleep, but at the same time, she is singing about how much she misses her own home and her parents. It is a deeply sorrowful blues, a work song of sorts, and I created an arrangement that draws on the blues and work songs that I know from American music. Amazingly, when I toured China, the country was not on friendly terms with Japan, and I was told to not even mention Japan on the radio. I then knew I would not be able to play this song . . . but I wondered . . . I whistled the melody in the presence of the festival volunteers and they said, 'oh, that's a Chinese song!'. Then, when we got to this traditional theme in the concert, we played 'Takeda' and the whole audience started singing along in Chinese! Nothing like music and food to connect two people who think they are at odds with each other."
"All I Really Want To Do Is Dance" - Etkin commented, "it's true . . . that is all I really want to do. This song was actually also recorded on my 'Wake Up, Clarinet!' CD for children, which is based on the Timbalooloo method I developed. Part of the method is that all the instruments are actually talking, so that the kids make their instruments talk instead of playing the 'right notes'. In this song my clarinet is saying 'All I Really Want To Do Is Dance' and 'Dance really silly, dance willy nilly, dance like uncle Billy' . . . but it's based on a nine-tone row, one of the concepts that the late, great Dr. Yusef Lateef shared with me in our time together."
Other highlights on Gathering Light include "Tony's Dance", is based on the original name of this project, as it existed in Etkin's head during the conceptualizing process, and "Tony" became a kind of alter-ego for Etkin while he was on tour in China, Japan, Indonesia, Israel and Europe. "I carried Tony around in my head. In the early stages of forming ideas for this album he did not have much of a character yet, but as I went on, his character began to grow and to reveal itself to me. Turns out Tony is great, very helpful, carrying my horns through the airport, etc, but once we get to our destination, he has a tendency to get in trouble, always running into the street market, trying all the foods. And, Tony is absolutely undiplomatic and honest. That is the character of the music that we play - we express what we can't express with words with our music, uncompromising and honest and direct, and also daring and unafraid and playful", said Etkin.
"When It's Sleepy Time Down South" - "I added this song to our repertoire when I was in the South of China, but it is about a different kind of South, the one that was home for Louis Armstrong, who was my main inspiration to explore and love music. I first heard Louis when I was nine years old and for the next five years, I immersed myself in his music and that of his contemporaries. I went down to New Orleans a few times and got to listen to the music and play a bit with the great Tuba Fats during that time. The combination of his lyricism and soaring sense of melody together with his deep sense of swing and groove is something I humbly try to strive for in every situation I'm in, no matter how modern. This song is one of his favorites - and the one he would start each concert off with for many years. For me, it felt like a fitting way to close off this album, coming back home after a long and inspiring tour. The track starts off with a solo intro that recalls the flavor of "Gambang Suling from the beginning of the journey.
Highlights of the Gathering Light CD Release Tour!:
April 13 - The Lily Pad, Cambridge, MA
April 19 - Duende, Oakland, CA
April 26 - Simon-Petrus Church - Jazz Ahead!, Bremen, Germany
May 12 - Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, NY, NY