In my experience, the best jazz for children is just, well, jazz. You may not want to start with Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman (most adults don't start with them either), but there's nothing even potentially off-putting to kids about most of the genre's classic big names, from Louis Armstrong to at least the early work of John Coltrane. So I've always been skeptical about jazz albums specifically aimed at children; they seem to me to be serving a nonexistent and unnecessary market.
Saxophonist and clarinetist Oran Etkin's Wake Up, Clarinet! qualifies as a remarkable exception, however. The album is being released this coming Tuesday, September 14, in conjunction with the launch of Etkin's Timbalooloo brand of music classes for children, an expansion of ones he's been teaching to New York City kids. Timbalooloo aims to access and augment children's natural musicality, and while I can't really say whether this CD manages that on its own, I can say that you and your kids will get to listen to some seriously high-quality playing while finding out.
That's because Etkin is an award-winning artist outside the children's music arena (his 2009 album Kelenia, which combined modern jazz with traditional Malian and Jewish music, picked up an Independent Music Award), and because he's recruited a killer set of musicians to work with here, including drummer Jason Marsalis and vocalist Charenee Wade. The result is modern jazz that's not only accessible to kids, but designed specifically for them. In a way, it's a jarring contrast: the title track, for instance, is essentially classic instrument personification à la Peter and the Wolf, in which Etkin and the other musicians encourage kids to sing along to help wake up the sleepy clarinet. But the music, and especially the clarinet's solo when it is roused, feels unexpectedly sophisticated for such subject matter. (People probably once said the same of Prokofiev.)
I suspect that some of Etkin's patter introducing the various songs and concepts plays a little better in the directly interactive realm of the Timbalooloo classroom, but children still respond to it, and it's not overly distracting for adults. And the music is as rich, full, and pleasing as you'd expect from such an expert roster, particularly on the tracks that include Wade, whose voice just never stops smiling, or making you smile.
[Image courtesy of Timbalooloo]