Clarinettist Oran Etkin while channelling Benny Goodman in this “reimagining” show was not involving himself with anything as literal as actually playing the role of Benny Goodman in the manner of pastiche.
This after all was not acting, and stylistically had a more modernist sensibility that some dusty tribute shows lack.
The first of his two-night stay at the Dean Street club, 2015 is 80 years on from the Palomar Ballroom Los Angeles residency that ushered in the Swing Era.
Etkin’s What’s New album captures a 21st century take on the thrill of the Goodman sound and the set list was based around the album.
Label mate singer Charenée Wade fresh from her Gil Scott-Heron triumph earlier this year came on for a few songs, not without an air of languid mischief on ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’; and the great vibist Steve Nelson also from the new Etkin record (also heard this year on Chris Potter Underground Orchestra’s Imaginary Cities) was vital in the modernist harmonies introduced, while the tasteful Helen Sung of the Mingus Big Band and drummer Ziv Ravitz from Shai Maestro’s trio completed this high-powered band.
The evening began with ‘What’s New’ title track of the new Motéma album, Etkin’s command of the upper register and up into the stratosphere beyond the normal scale and use of that ear-popping whine and leap of glissando makes you think above all of the groundbreaking creativity of Rhapsody in Blue.
‘Running Wild’ in Etkin’s hands is a romp, a world away from Some Like It Hot where movie fans absorb the song like mother’s milk but this was just as nutritious; while the “black national anthem” lightly renamed as ‘When Every Voice Shall Sing’ on this occasion on a damp Soho evening was as gentle as a Billy Taylor composition complete with a beautiful cadential figure from Sung at the end providing a big highlight.
Etkin switched to communicative bass clarinet for portions of the gig (sounding like soprano sax paradoxically) and dispelling the gloomy sound the instrument sometimes projects in lesser hands.
Standout Jelly Roll Morton tune ‘King Porter Stomp’ journeyed to the very creation of jazz that Goodman revived during the Swing Era decades on from its origins in New Orleans; and the reconfigured Etkin composition ‘Be Good Lady’ drew on the Gershwin classic ‘Lady Be Good’ adding another intrinsic part of the pluralistic pan-cultural mix that the album thrives on.
Etkin’s approach isn’t doggedly retro in the way that it could have been and that is to its massive credit although it is a respectful homage.
The playing is immaculate and Brooklyn-based Etkin responds well to the band, not lacking a stand-up bass player although Nelson had his work cut out as did Sung but vibes could have been even more demonstrative, Nelson one of the global masters of the instrument choosing restraint and cool presence throughout. Ravitz was more than active moving into frantic territory responding well to the stimulating wail and wang of the clarinet and the elegant skill of Wade’s vocals.
Helen Sung, top left, Oran Etkin and Steve Nelson at Pizza Express Jazz Club
Photo: Sabina Czajkowska