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John Ettinger: Kissinger In Space

Chris May By

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Rarely the ringmaster and more often the performing seal, the violin has never been a member of the jazz lineup's inner circle. From Stuff Smith's congenial swing through Ornette Coleman's excruciating scratchings, it has instead orbited colourfully around the margins, at best providing exoticism, at worst attention-seeking novelty. The closest the fiddle ever got to the beating heart of things was probably with Stephane Grappelli in the Hot Club de France in the 1930s. 59-year-old Billy Bang aside, precious few players of substance have since come forward.

Listening to John Ettinger's muscular and weighty Kissinger In Space, you wonder why. Most likely it's because the violin comes with a truckload of uncool conservatoire associations: ranks of penguin-suited automatons sitting cowed by the conductor's baton, and not a reefer in sight. (Only a few people today know Smith's 1936 recording "Here Comes The Man With The Jive," and most of them have short-term memory loss).

Whatever the reason, the violin's isolation is undeserved. Here, without fanfare or special treatment, it fits right into a high-grade piano-less quartet—displacing easily as much weight as tenor saxophone, bass or drums, and proclaiming Ettinger as a distinctive and top-drawer new voice in the music.

Still little known outside the San Francisco area, Ettinger shines alongside his three more celebrated colleagues—Tony Malaby (saxophone), Devin Hoff (bass), and Scott Amendola (drums). He gets something of a boost through looping and post-production, but no more than Amendola. Electronic manipulation is sparingly used (considerably less than on Ettinger's 2003 debut, August Rain), and the title track and Amendola's showcase "The Doors Are Closing" aside, post-production supports rather than shapes events.

By turns joyous and autumnal, pensive and funked up, lyrical and beat-driven, on the page and off it, all sometimes within the course of the same tune, Ettinger's music blends precisely arranged through-composition with unfettered collective improvisation. It's utterly distinctive stuff, and amongst its chief joys is the remarkable symbiosis between Ettinger and Malaby, whose close sonic fit and dual-drive improvised lines are the disc's dominant presence. Amendola's subtly groovalicious drums are another source of delight.

Most of the tracks (there are nine, averaging about six minutes each) are composed of mini-movements: the eight-minute title track, for instance, moves through five distinct sections, from tender to tribal. Only one tune, "Quaint," is built around a traditional soloist-plus-rhythm section template. At any given moment, there's always at least one person improvising and almost always at least one person playing something written. The music is in a permament transitive state—and its evolution is thrilling and engrossing to witness.

An auspicious release from a real-life emergent star, and a new benchmark for creative jazz violin.


Track Listing: Dual Diagnosis; Better Angels; Kissinger In Space; Quaint; The Observer; Harper Lee; Talking Leaves; The Doors Are Closing; Tangle.

Personnel: John Ettinger: violin, violin loops/treatments; Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Devin Hoff: acoustic bass; Scott Amendola: drums, loops-treatments, electric mbira, percussion.

Title: Kissinger In Space | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Ettinger Music

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