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Oran Etkin: What’s New? Reimagining Benny Goodman

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More than 75 years removed from his breakthrough, the late Benny Goodman remains the most important clarinetist in the history of jazz, and one of its most successful bandleaders. Yet today, despite that vaunted status, he is often overlooked, something Oran Etkin aims to remedy with this new collection. It’s a decidedly different path for Etkin-whose previous outing, 2014’s Gathering Light, explored influences from Africa, Asia and his native Israel-yet an obvious one as well: Etkin, who plays standard and bass clarinet and saxophone, expresses in his liner notes a longtime affinity for Goodman, who too was the son of Jewish immigrants.

The “reimagining” of the subtitle is key here: Etkin and his core band-pianist Sullivan Fortner, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and Matt Wilson on drums-have no interest in mimicking the sounds and aesthetics of the ’30s and ’40s. The Louis Prima-composed “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the Goodman staple that closes out the album officially (although it’s followed on the CD by an unlisted “Moonglow”), spends nearly half of its three-plus minutes avoiding the familiar theme altogether. Fortner, Nelson and Etkin lay out a simple, quasi-classical melody and chase each other’s tails with it before Wilson’s tom-toms goad the others toward the tune proper. Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When,” elegant, easygoing and drumless, and “Dinah,” with its fractured rhythm, are worlds apart from anything Goodman might have conjured, although Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” will feel comfy to the retro crowd with its ragtimey cheer.

Another two tracks, “Why Don’t You Do Right” and “After You’ve Gone,” each featuring the vocals of rising star Charenee Wade, are polar opposites temperamentally: The first clip-clops along haphazardly, paying little regard to convention; the second is standard lights-down-low blues. It’s questionable whether Goodman would have felt either arrangement. But by the time the hour-long program concludes, Etkin and crew have accomplished their task of using Goodman as a catalyst for both rediscovery and envisioning.

Originally Published