In the last few years, whether a result of the Internet, globalization, or some vague creative itch, the search for new music and new musical inspiration has seemingly reached a fever pitch. One result of this search has been a slew of releases that merge jazz with traditional African music. Occidental Brothers Dance International Band, NOMO, and Zap Mama are just three of the many artists who have, for the most part, successfully combined the rhythms and folk melodies of Africa with the free form aesthetic and blues sound evocative of the jazz idiom. Now with his debut recording, Kelenia, Israeli-born reedist Oran Etkin throws his hat into the ring.
Compared to his peers, Etkin’s variation on the jazz-meets-Africa mixture is more jazz-heavy, with fewer repetitive riffs and sing-along choruses. Most of the tracks on Kelenia are slower, downtempo affairs with traditional African instruments providing a foundation from which Etkin offers bluesy saxophone solos and melodies. Etkin, who has spent time in West Africa absorbing the music and culture, is joined by a stellar cast of African-born musicians, including guitarist Lionel Loueke, balafonist Balla Kouyate, and percussionist Makane Kouyate. None of the tracks on Kelenia stands out, but the musicianship and players’ ability to convey intense emotion is first-rate across the entire album. Etkin’s clarinet tone adds a klezmer or Middle Eastern tint to this enjoyable set, especially on tracks like “Yekeke” and “Nina”. And Etkin’s saxophone playing, which he learned from Dave Liebman and Yusef Lateef, among others, is warm and sinewy, especially on a great version of Duke Ellington’s classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and the very bluesy “Damonzon”.
Kelenia is highly recommended for proponents of the genre and should serve as an excellent gateway drug for fans of mainstream jazz, lounge, and world music.