A jazz bassist brings the blues back home

Ehud Ettun talks about his strings, training with his Jerusalem master teachers and hanging with fellow sabra players in NYC

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Ettun with his Water Esc quartet from Boston (Courtesy Ehud Ettun)
Ettun with his Water Esc quartet from Boston (Courtesy Ehud Ettun)

As Ehud Ettun tells it, he came across the bass — an oversized, hollow-bodied string instrument that emits a smooth, low-pitched sound — by chance.

At the time, he was a 16-year-old who liked the guitar, thanks to a homeroom teacher who had a penchant for performing in class, and had, just for the fun of it, joined several of his musician friends for an interview at the prestigious Israel Arts and Science Academy. During the interview, the renowned composer Andre Hajdu, a member of the faculty, played an impromptu duet with Ettun, drawing out his skills and sound.

“I was clueless,” chuckled Ettun, remembering the audition years later. “He told me I had an excellent ear, but knew nothing. The whole thing was by coincidence.”

Ettun was accepted to the academy and told he had to ditch his electric guitar and choose another instrument. He picked the bass, mostly because he liked its sound and was beginning to think about jazz rather than rock.

Ehud Ettun with saxophonist George Garzone and drummer Patrick Kunka (Courtesy Ehud Ettun)
Ehud Ettun with saxophonist George Garzone and drummer Patrick Kunka (Courtesy Ehud Ettun)

Nine years later, Ettun is considered an up-and-coming jazz musician and is “among the most impressive growing talents in Israel,” according to the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth. He’s currently living in New York, having completed his master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music, but has plans to return to Israel and start a music school in the desert reaches of the Negev, where he wants to continue expanding peoples’ concept of sound and music.

Were you always musically inclined?

I started learning piano at the age of six, but dropped it pretty quickly. Then we had a homeroom teacher at school who used guitar to teach everything, and I was hooked.


The double bass is one of those more unusual instruments. It’s big, unwieldy, not the most common sound. How was the transition to that from the guitar?

I had great teachers who taught me to think out of the box. Professor Bat-Sheva Rubinstein was terrifying, and I learned never to be late for her class, but she taught me her unique method of ear training and how to sing Bach chorals. Then I studied the upright bass with Michael Klinghoffer, who taught me to love classical bass, and that’s what I did for three years.

You moved away from your family in Jerusalem to the States to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory and are now working and living in New York. How was that been?

I had already completed my bachelor’s degree at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance while I was in the army (Ettun was a youth counselor during his army service), and I wanted to continue expanding my knowledge. I got a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory and now my plan is to get as much playing power as I can. I’m giving myself 10 years to make it.

How do you make your way in the big, wide world of jazz?

As a bass player, I like to do what interests me and to play with people who inspire me. The nature of jazz and improvised music is that you have the necessary skills, that you know the repertoire and are able to use them as a base for improvisation. If you know the music, playing together [with other musicians] will be interesting, even if you haven’t rehearsed 10 times. What that creates is that you don’t always play with the same people and groups change all the time.

Are you part of the ‘kibbutz’ of Israelis playing jazz in New York? Last May, The New York Times wrote that over the last 15 years, “Israel has produced and exported so many serious young musicians that the jazz landscape is hard to picture without their influence, particularly in New York and especially now.”

There is definitely a “chevre” of Israelis in the jazz world in New York, and many different musicians are helping me polish my music skills, and make a living doing so. I try to choose the people I play with out of pure musical perspective. A lot of time they’re Israeli, and very good. I feel most comfortable with friends from Israel or musicians from Israel, but by nature, it’s so simple to play together that when I can get inspired from someone from a different culture, like my [fellow Water Esc quartet member] pianist Haruka from Japan, I do so, because that’s why I went to the US.

Like many Israeli jazz musicians making it in the States, you got your base of learning here, and then moved there to make your mark. That said, you still offer significant elements of your roots, such as the piece, “Tefila” or “Heading North.” Do you consider your music traditional, or is it that sense of always staying somewhat true to your roots?

My music is very Israeli and it’s part of the reason why if I’m feeling comfortable enough in my place, and the other people in their place, we can meet without them turning into me and me turning into them. They have their own agenda and culture, and I stay in my own thing and it still works together and that’s where I think it’s really happening.

How do you envision leaving the wide world of New York and migrating to the Negev?

There’s something very inspiring for artists in the desert, and I think it will be easier to bring artists for residencies and performances in the Negev. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are great, but they have everything. Part of this is about me giving back, because I’m where I am now thanks to the infrastructure I had for studying and asking the right questions and I would like to create that somewhere where there is less of that being offered.

Ehud Ettun will be playing Thursday night, January 3, with saxophonist Eli Degibri and singer Yael Deckelbaum at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, a first for this particular trio, who will be performing Ettun’s latest project, the songs of Avraham Chalfi initially played by Arik Einstein and Yoni Richter.

He’s also performing on Friday, January 4, at the Mizpe Ramon Jazz Club and on Saturday, January 5, at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv with his usual trio of Daniel Schwartzwald and Matan Asayag.

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