Clarinetist Oran Etkin is a man in motion. His new album, Gathering Light, reveals some of what he has learned in his travels.
The album chronicles his experiences in Asia over the past two years, but he was in the West African country of Ghana when I reached him by phone to talk about the CD.
Why Ghana? “Because someone asked me to come,” he said.
In a nutshell, this is why Etkin is a natural ambassador for jazz. Ask, and he will come. In addition to superb mastery of his instrument, this open-hearted attitude enables him to draw from his roots and translate essential human experience into a wide variety of contexts.
In Bremen, Germany, at the 2012 JazzAhead! conference, he was invited to to perform at an American cultural center in Jakarta. That led to multiple trips to Indonesia, where he visited remote music schools in the countryside and an island off the coast of New Guinea, as well as trips through Japan and China.
Everywhere he went, he played with local musicians, and learned folk songs which are featured here, like the Japanese “Takeda,” a bittersweet lullaby originally sung by a lower-caste nanny sold by her family to care for the child of a wealthy family.
In his travels, he discovered that music often carries its own message: in China, duriing a moment of heightened political tension with Japan, he played “Takeda” and was stunned when the audience began singing along – in Chinese. It was a beloved traditional song, they told him.
Rather than argue, Etkin just smiled, and played his heart out in the song every night.
To perform in China, Etkin was required to sign contracts confirming he would steer clear of controversy, and never mention hot-button topics like Japan, the Olympics and Tibet.
Etkin politely complied, but as he traveled he developed an imaginary alter ego, Tony – the kind of devil-may-care American traveler who defies local customs, and always speaks his mind, whatever the cost.
Tony makes three appearances on the album – on “Tony’s Dance,” “Taxi Dance” and “Guangzhou Taxi,” which humorously recount episodes of his bumbling imaginary adventures.
The album’s centerpiece is the seven-minute “Gratitude,” which reunites Etkin’s core trio of Ben Allison on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums with longtime collaborators Lionel Loueke on guitar and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone. The track is riven with the blues and self-disclosure.
It is fitting the album closes with “When It’s Sleepytime Down South,” one of the favorites frequently performed by Etkin’s first musical hero, trumpeter Louis Armstrong. In his travels as a “jazz ambassador” for the U.S. State Department, Armstrong also visited Ghana in 1956, where he performed for more than a hundred thousand jubliant fans in the newly independent nation’s capital, Accra.
Etkin is like Armstrong in that the music found him, and claims him as its own; he seeks to honor this gift by sharing it wherever he goes, and we fortunate that he does.
– Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer