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Berkeleyside

Despite releasing three acclaimed CDs over the past decade featuring some of jazz’s most accomplished improvisers, John Ettinger is one of the East Bay’s best kept musical secrets. The El Cerrito violinist gained a good deal of attention in 2006 with “Kissinger In Space,” an album as strange, wondrous and amusing as its title. He’s mostly been out of sight since the release of his last CD, 2008’s beauteous “Inquatica” with Pete Forbes on drums, piano, and banjo, a multi-tracked improvisational duo session marked by his judicious use of space and a haunting version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”

Ettinger presents a program of music drawn from his three albums for the first time Saturday at the Berkeley Art Festival space on University Avenue with a quintet featuring bassist Todd Sickafoose, drummer Lorca Hart, guitarist Jon Preuss and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby. He never intended to keep his music on the down low, but with a day job at Ifshin Violins and a growing family, Ettinger put hustling gigs on the back burner.

“There just hasn’t been time to do the phone work and booking,” says Ettinger, who also performs with Preuss, Sickafoose and guitarist Myles Boisen in the Miniwatt String Quartet at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House on Nov. 24. “Recording seemed like a more controllable way to get things done, without crazy late hours.”

Ettinger decided to seize the moment for a belated CD release gig when he saw that Malaby, an old friend from their days at Arizona State in the mid-1980s, was scheduled for a spate of West Coast performances, including last Saturday’s San Francisco Jazz Festival show with his celebrated trio Tamarindo. A ubiquitous presence on the New York jazz scene’s exploratory frontier, the thick-toned saxophonist is a featured soloist in several stellar ensembles, including Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Ettinger grew up in Arizona and moved to the Bay Area in the early 1990s. Over the years he’s played in chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras, theatrical settings and free improv jazz. He gained the most visibility in the 1990s jazz/rock combo he led with Preuss, Hurlo Thrumbo, which occasionally shared the bill with T.J. Kirk, the popular three-guitar-and-drums quartet powered by Scott Amendola.

After playing several gigs with the Scott Amendola Band, Ettinger recruited Amendola, Sickafoose and pianist Art Hirahara, who all performed together in an exquisite trio, for his impressive debut album, 2003’s “August Rain.” The project put him at the forefront of a new generation of string players, and he’s continued to develop his singular sound.

“I tried not to pin it down stylistically,” Ettinger says. “I knew I wanted to play with a rhythm section, and I came up with melodies and forms and strategies. It’s very intuitive. I don’t think all that hard about it.”

Almost a decade after its release the music on “August Rain” is getting a proper premiere. Let’s hope there are more showers in store.

Cadence Magazine

[Inquatica] features a generous amount of multi-tracking.  Despite my reservations about its use in improvised music, it's generally well done here, with a dash of piano added here, or some reversed samples added there, to supplement the slightly mournful, definitely spacious and introspective music.  Forbes plays with the right touch for this kind of impressionistic, vaguely cinematic music, using gentle cymbals flashes or slight brush patter to complement gauzy lines that don't sound weak at all (Jeff Gauthier is a useful comparison, or even Hank Roberts if he played violin instead of cello).  But the music is rarely as ephemeral as these descriptions might suggest.  Sometimes, the pair revel in somewhat perverse gestures, as with the tweaked out banjo on "A Place To Be From." And I really enjoyed the distorted signal used on several of these tracks, which makes it sound like the violin is wrapped in cotton wool (the groove of "Layers" combines with this sound to make it almost like a recent Radiohead track somehow).  Some of the curveballs wear thin quickly, especially the booming beats and crazed overtones of "High Coup" or the Rhodes-driven trance grooves of "Swim."  Still, there's more than enough good stuff here to satisfy, even extending to gentle drones on "The Wake" and "Just Like Tomorrow" (the latter ending with a provocative interval that suggests a calliope) and the simply lovely violin heard on the title track and on the hazy reading of "Stardust," both spare and compelling.

-Cadence Magazine, July-Sept 2009.

Village Voice

"...Violinist and drummer, compellingly fast and intriguingly slow, love when they tune in "Stardust."

allaboutjazz.com


With practically no warning, violinist John Ettinger burst out of the San Francisco Bay area scene and towards national cult status in 2006 with Kissinger In Space (Ettinger Music, 2006). The album—made with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola—announced Ettinger as a thrilling new voice in creative jazz and made an irrefutable case for the violin as a heavyweight frontline instrument. Kissinger went on to become an AAJ Publisher's Pick and figured in several best-of lists compiled by AAJ contributors at the end of the year.

 

Inquatica is likely to cause another sensation. The album is an extension of the groove Ettinger established on Kissinger—by turns tumultuous, ruminative, pretty and rocking, and magically lyrical—but within a new paradigm. This time, instead of a quartet, he's working with just one other musician, drummer Pete Forbes, and has exchanged a conventional theme/solos/theme construct for a set which is 99% improvised, with tracks which, in the main, unfold in a non-linear, non-narrative fashion. In a further departure, Ettinger is once again foregrounding the use of loops—scaled back on Kissinger in favor of unprocessed acoustic violin—which he introduced with his first album, August Rain (Self Produced, 2003).

Miraculously, given the general absence of pre-written tunes and the almost wholly improvised playing, Inquatica is as accessible as its predecessor. Only a couple of tracks have tunes in the traditional sense—one of these is the disc's sole cover, a lovely reading of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust"—but Ettinger's melodicism is as acute in improvisation as it is in composition, and this makes for an immediate connection with the listener. His rhythmic vocabulary also remains potent. Forbes gets behind a drum kit to play beat-centric motor rhythms on only a handful of tracks, but the oscillating rhythms provided by Ettinger's loops offer another seductive pulse.

Ettinger winningly defies the geeky, mechanistic approach adopted by many loopists, instead creating motifs, themes, counterpoint, drones, departure points and collages which sound organic and intuitive. Unusually, this is technology at the service of creative music making rather than music enslaved to technological obsession. Ettinger's loops function as active and engaged instruments rather than discrete electronic effects, on occasion—like on the opening "Dancing With The Other Side" and the title track—functioning just like another player, moving and changing through the tracks. It's an approach which dispels any lingering doubts about loop-laden music. There are tracks, too, like "Stardust" and the vaguely Celtic closer "Film," on which Ettinger's violin is basically acoustic, using only subtle pedal effects.

Between them, Ettinger and Forbes add acoustic or electric piano to seven tracks, and Forbes a banjo, played like some alchemical cross between a mandolin and a koto, to two. Ettinger also plays thumping bass on "Layers," with "High Coup" and "Swim" one of three rock-out tracks which recall the title track from Kissinger.

Radiant, transporting and with a beauty which reveals more of itself with each repeated playing,Inquatica is a second masterpiece from an astonishing new star.

DownBeat Magazine

"Free improvisation and modern composition are among the hallmarks of Kissinger In Space, John Ettinger’s fine sophomore release. Ettinger, a San Francisco Bay Area violinist, shares the front line with the tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby in a piano-less quartet. The ensemble provides the harmonic freedom for this disjointed but ultimately satisfying music. Ettinger and Malaby complement one another in spite of the differences in the range and tembre of their instruments. Six of Ettinger’s nine originals clock in at five minutes or under; the solos neither drift nor ramble. The album hits its stride on the title song, which flies out of the gate stoked by an uptempo rock beat. After the rhythm section drops out, the forward motion gives way toa trance-like swirl of violin, saxophone and electronics. "Quaint" is one of several tunes beginning with an African-flavored ostinato played by bassist Devin Hoff. The quartet soon leaves the pocket behind, and Ettinger and Malaby blow their most intense solos of the session. "Talking Leaves" showcases Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola, while "The Doors Are Closing" features neither improvisation nor a dramatic climax. The composition, however, does capture the depth and immediacy of chamber music."

Cadence Magazine

"The combination of John Ettinger’s violin and Tony malaby’s tenor sax on Kissinger In Space is as beautiful as it is unusual. Malaby, of course, is becoming a star now, and deservedly so. But Ettinger finds in the saxophonistt an exceptionally sensitive partner. They meld when they need to, and play counterpoint as well. Malaby here favors the upper register of his sax when he wants to blend with the violin, and stretches over the whole range of the instrument when he solos. And then there is Scott Amendola, one of the ablest and brightest drummers we have, adding all his colors. This quartet makes a great sound.

The compositions are all by Ettinger, and they are all intriguing and diverse, swinging at times and at times finding free abstraction. But his "Harper Lee" is a good example of how he works. It opens with much stillness and abstraction, with lots of plucking and Amendola’s mbira creating space. Then the violin and tenor sax sing together an achingly beautiful melody that evolves through both their following solow, until the piece descends delicately into silence again. If you are looking for jazz that is new and different, but totally approachable, this is a great find."
Phillip McNally, Cadence Magazine, February 2007

Contra Costa Times

"SPEAKING OF IMPRESSIVE ALBUMS...Violinist John Ettinger released the intriguing, unsettling and occasionally confounding session of original compositions "Kissinger in Space," with powerhouse tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola..."
Andrew Gilbert, Contra Costa Times, January 11, 2007

Signal To Noise Magazine

"...As Ettinger and Malaby spiral around one another you can hear each instrument borrowing qualities from its counterpart: it’s particularly intriguing to hear Malaby shifting towards a light sound and edgeless, long-lined lyricism rarely heard in his work elsewhere. The shorter pieces are beautifully pared down: a track like "The Observer" emerges as a single unbroken utterance that takes the track’s entire length to make its point. The best pieces, though, are the longest and most unpredictable ones. The freeboppish "Quaint" is one of the album’s most exciting tracks, though it keeps circling back to a hushed, secretive core; the sadder-but-wiser lyricism of "Harper Lee" twists between dark and light, eliciting some of Ettinger’s most rapt, flowing violin; while the rock and roll thrash of the title cut turns into a mysterious plunge into the cosmos."
Nate Dorward, Signal To Noise Magazine, Winter 2007, Issue #44
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2006 Signal to Noise Magazine andNate Dorward.

Allmusic.com

John Ettinger, a versatile violinist based in the San Francisco Bay area, has in the past played with rock and avant-garde groups so he has a very open style. On Kissinger In Space, he mixes together lyrical melodies with free playing while emphasizing catchy yet unpredictable rhythms, close interplay with tenor-saxophonist Tony Malaby, group improvising and quirky themes that take their time to develop...the music is fairly accessible and concise if full of constant surprises. It takes a few listens to fully apreciate this diverse and colorful music for it follows its own intriguing logic. Recommended.
Scott Yanow, AllMusic.com
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2006 All Music Guide and Scott Yanow.

Allaboutjazz.com

"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."

Bowed Radio

"John Ettinger starts off the show with his free-jazz exploration "Dual Diagnosis" from his latest disc Kissinger In Space. In all honesty, I don’t believe I’ve heard anyone play the violin like John does here — his playing is raw and wild, totally abandoning the "sweetness" of tone that marks Stephane Grappelli’s playing for example. On this tune (and on others on the disc) he phrases in and out with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby — and often it is difficult to tell them apart. He truly takes the conventions of the violin to a new level – and frankly I hope it catches on."
Bowed Radio, Mark Allender, Episode 49

allaboutjazz.com

"Let’s be honest. The best thing about what critics do is that we get the chance to listen to new music more or less constantly. So when something random falls out of the mailbox, we might just make a discovery. And have a chance to share it with the world, of course.

And so with that selfish mindset a given, John Ettinger just scored a whole heap of points this evening. August Rain comes from San Francisco and the artist put together a pretty miserable press sheet, along with a ’maybe later...’ web page, so there wasn’t much to do but guess. And to be honest, it’s brilliant. These West Coasters have a thing about music hovering between funk, the jam, free jazz, and good solid swing, simultaneously doing it all (and them all) right.

The secret in this case is John Ettinger, violinist and looper and effects man, sharing the stage with electric piano, bass, and drums. He has a way of popping in and out at opportune times to build a melody out of a groove, establish a specific mood, or carry on a burst of lyricism. The loops swirl all the time.

’Lead A Normal Life’ grows out of a simple drone to acquire echoing background whispers, a child-like bass melody, Fender Rhodes chords... and then finally Ettinger pops in personally to take swinging pizzicato lines away from the organist and turn them into a rallying point for a few ’70s dream sequences. And then, more or less without warning, everyone falls off a cliff into a smouldering dirge, emerging into one more of those childhood discovery moments and some straight up group polyrhythms.

That’s one track, and you can guess how the rest work. Fortunately they do work, which is the frightening (and brilliant) thing about this music. You single out anyone from the band and he is more than competent. Drummer Scott Amendola in particular digs deep enough into each groove, whether organized or loose, to almost singlehandedly determine its rhythmic course. Rhodes man Art Hirahara and bassist Todd Sickafoose both hold their own in any case.

You don’t often bump into this sort of thing, which makes it all the better when it’s unexpected. (There’s a whole lot of bad unexpected music in the world, trust me.) So score twenty for John Ettinger and his team. August Rain is a dream state with enough of both fantasy and reality to leave you wondering whether it’s actually happening."
Nils Jacobson, All About Jazz

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