When saxophonist George Garzone would front his trio with drummer Jorge Perez-Albela and bassist Ehud Ettun, he had a standard instruction for the soundman regarding Ettun: “I want this guy in front. He’s not a bass player, he’s a horn player.”
Listening to 27-year-old, Jerusalem-born Ettun on any of a number of recent discs explains why Garzone wanted the bassist up in the mix alongside the saxophone. Take “Transparency,” the opener from “Raw Gestures,” a CD by Ettun’s trio, which plays the Lily Pad on March 3.
The piece begins with querying repeated-note figures from pianist Daniel Schwartzwald before Ettun and drummer Matan Asayag enter. The bassist at first spells out the harmonies and rhythm with spare low notes, which gradually accelerate to a fast-note, deep-register solo, and then a frenzied duo exchange with Schwartzwald, ornamented with high-note phrases. But what’s especially compelling here is the way Ettun unspools long arcing phrases, independent melody lines that nonetheless synchronize with Schwartzwald’s playing.
Whatever his virtuoso flights, Ettun never loses his grasp of a performance’s essential musicality. His upper-register flurries support a performance rather than distracting from it. And in the lower registers, Ettun can conjure the deep soulfulness of Charlie Haden. His repertoire includes everything from standards and wide-ranging originals to jazz arrangements of Bartók’s Romanian Dances.
Ettun’s skills come from rigorous training and an apparent innate curiosity. In Jerusalem, he studied with the esteemed classical bassist Michael Klinghoffer at the elite Israel Arts and Science Academy. Originally a guitarist, Ettun switched to bass because the school required that he study a classical instrument. He earned his master’s degree at New England Conservatory in 2012.
“Because of Michael, I fell in love with the bass,” Ettun says of his teacher. “He was so passionate about education, and he made such a difference in my life, so if I can make that difference for other people, that’s what I want to do.” To that end, Ettun’s giving private lessons as well as teaching at Concord Academy of Music, where he runs an educational concert series that mixes jazz and classical music.
Ettun’s passion for education is conjoined with a belief in community. He’s built a record label, Internal Compass, that he hopes will be the core of an educational and cross-cultural mission. So far, in addition to “Raw Gestures,” the label’s catalog includes a duo CD with pianist Haruka Yabuno, a solo CD by Schwartzwald, and an album from the Why, the experimental Boston jazz band led by veteran local pianist and composer Bert Seager. On “The Why” you can hear another side of Ettun, as he matches his dark, round tones with the plucked and bowed cello of Catherine Bent. Not your standard quartet, the Why combines jazz improvisation with classical and world-music traditions, the group rounded out by polymath percussionist Brian O’Neill.
“I think Ehud is remarkable,” says Seager. “Such a fresh way of thinking about almost everything. Plus his musical training, based on ear training and classical bass technique, gives him a kind of willingness to try ideas that most players don't dare do.”
After getting his NEC degree, Ettun spent a year in New York, but realized that the scene there, at least for now, isn’t for him: “I saw people playing a gig, or two gigs, every night, running from gig to gig, playing with different people.” Instead, he returned to Boston and set out to develop ongoing relationships with a core of like-minded artists. “I always knew that in this lonely world of musicians, you wanted to be part of a collective,” he says.
Ettun dreams of creating a small Internal Compass festival in Jerusalem. He sees improvising musicians with a shared language, “presenting something that fills the room in the moment,” as special to jazz. He also hopes that the diversity of his label — musically and culturally — serves as a bridge among communities in places like Jerusalem. “You can put barriers between people, but the cultures are going to talk.”
Among his role models are pianist Danilo Pérez, who has created the Global Jazz Institute at Berklee as well as a jazz festival and education program in his native Panama, and Gustavo Dudamel, a product of Venezuela’s El Sistema music education program, who has created his own network of educational outreach in his role as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“When you go to the top 1 percent of musicians, if there is such a thing,” says Ettun, “they’re more than musicians. They’re philanthropists through music. They’re activists of some sort. I’m sure many musicians want to just make music, and that’s it — but when you understand what a powerful tool you have in your hands, you can’t not use it.”
Ehud Ettun’s Internal Compass label joins a handful of local grassroots indie-jazz labels. Bolt guitarist Eric Hofbauer (see Noisy Neighbors) leads Creative Nation Music, and Bolt itself is part of Driff Records, run by saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra and pianist Pandelis Karayorgis. On March 1, Driff presents the debut performance of Bathysphere at the Lily Pad. The band is named for the deepwater exploration vessel, but Dijkstra points to the Greek root “bathys,” for “deep,” conjuring the ensemble’s low-end sound (two basses, baritone sax, tuba, trombone, lyricon) and, of course, Thelonious Monk’s middle name, Sphere. In addition to Dijkstra and Karayorgis, the band includes trumpeters Forbes Graham and Dan Rosenthal, trombonist Jeff Galindo, tubist Josiah Reibstein, saxophonists Charlie Kohlhase and Matt Langley, bassists Nate McBride and Jef Charland, drummer Luther Gray, and electronics master Andrew Neumann. Thus far, two more Bathysphere gigs are planned for the Lily, on April 12 and May 31.
Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.