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Jazz musicians pay homage to 'King of Swing'

Internationally acclaimed jazz musician Oran Etkin and his band present a modern homage to the “King of Swing” March 4 at the Sheldon Theatre. Photo by John Abbott

Internationally celebrated bandleader, clarinetist and composer Oran Etkin and his band will perform a modern salute to Benny Goodman — the "King of Swing" — at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 4, at the Sheldon Theatre.

Etkin, who plays tenor saxophone as well as clarinet and bass clarinet, will be joined by Steve Nelson on vibraphone, Matt Wilson on drums and Christian Sands on piano.

In their first Minnesota performance, the quartet will feature selections from their recent recording, "What's New? Reimagining Benny Goodman."

The group explores the sounds of Goodman's 1930s recordings that launched the Swing Era, but in new directions that honor Goodman's spirit of daring innovation, according to the Sheldon.

Etkin moved to the United States from Israel at 4 years old, and grew up surrounded by classical and Israeli music. By age 9 he was playing piano, violin and saxophone; he added clarinet by age 13.

The soulful sound of Louis Armstrong's trumpet inspired him "to search for a way to express himself through music with honesty and integrity," according to Etkin's biography. That search led him to Goodman, who also was raised in a Jewish immigrant home and also was transformed by Armstrong's music.

Two historic moments inspired Etkin to develop "Reimagining Benny Goodman."

The first was the bandleader's August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, which critics say launched the Swing Era.

"I see the Swing Era as a spiritual awakening in the midst of the Great Depression," Etkin said.

"Through his clarinet, Goodman brought the swinging rhythms of black America, the soulful cry of the blues and the wailing moan of the Jewish prayer into American homes, creating a positive movement of music and dance that carried the country through a difficult period and quickly spread throughout the world."

Swing music became the new pop music of the day, Etkin pointed out — the rock 'n' roll of that era. In a deeper sense, it represented a sense of freedom for many people, and embraced diversity by bringing African American music into the mainstream.

"It was a difficult time, economically and socially," he said, but the music generated positive feelings involving music and dance. "Music brings people together."

A few months after the Palomar show, the newly ordained King of Swing revolutionized society again by inviting pianist Teddy Wilson to join him and drummer Gene Krupa to form America's first mainstream racially integrated band, the Benny Goodman Trio — which soon expanded to a quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton on vibraphone.

Goodman contributed to a struggle for freedom that continues today, Etkin believes. In Goodman's honor, he wrote "When Every Voice Shall Sing," and he dedicated the album to the groundbreaking quartet.

That song will be among selections from the album that the band will perform in Red Wing, Etkin said. "It's a nod to the fact that a lot of this is relevant today as well."

The "What's New" project has been well-received internationally. The recording ranked among the Chicago Tribune's Top 10 Best Jazz Albums.

"We're trying to capture that essential feeling" of Goodman's music in a fresh and spontaneous way that is an honest expression of the music and himself, Etkin said.

Reviewers describe the tribute as imaginative, saying "Etkin taps into the melodicism of Armstrong and the bandleader statesmanship of Goodman while remaining true to his own creative voice." All About Jazz gave it four stars.

Etkin's other releases have received multiple awards internationally, including honors for being featured on a Grammy Award-winning children's compilation.

Recent appearances have taken Etkin from New York to the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel and the Istanbul Jazz Festival in Turkey, plus festivals in Europe and the far east.

Although he has appeared at major events around the world, he looks forward to performing in the Sheldon's smaller, more intimate space because he feels it will enable him to connect with the audience. "That is very important to me."

Etkin has a unique connection to children's music. He created a new approach called Timbalooloo in which children learn that making music is the act of getting an instrument to talk. This approach, he said, "helps children express themselves in a free and spontaneous way."

He developed a curriculum and trained teachers for classes that are being offered in New York; he is considering licensing Timbalooloo for use elsewhere.

Tickets to the March 4 concert are $18 to $35. For information or reservations call 651-388-8700 or go online to www.sheldontheatre.org.

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