When it comes to jazz’s Caribbean heritage, Cuba is just the beginning of the story. Hailing from Trinidad, trumpeter Etienne Charles is writing a buoyant new chapter exploring the inextricably intertwined but long shrouded history that ties jazz to the far-flung corners of the West Indies—Andrew Gilbert reports in this article from the San Jose Mercury News.
At 29, Charles is one of jazz’s most vivid new voices, a bandleader, composer and multi-instrumentalist who has developed a body of tunes combining traditional rhythms and themes from Trinidad and Haiti with a post-bop harmonic lexicon. He brings his stellar New York quintet to Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz on Monday and Yoshi’s-San Francisco on Tuesday.
As Charles sees it, he’s just building on New Orleans jazz patriarch Jelly Roll Morton’s insight that jazz requires a “Spanish tinge.” The Caribbean lilt has “always been a part of jazz,” Charles says. “It’s just not often pronounced. I don’t feel I’m doing anything new. I’m hearing the music the way I hear it.”
Part of an illustrious musical clan, Charles is the fourth generation of his family to advance Caribbean music. Born in the overseas French department of Martinique, his great-grandfather Clement Monlouis immigrated to Trinidad and passed along the folk music he absorbed in his village.
His grandfather, Ralph Charles, developed an innovative style on the four-string cuatro, the national instrument of nearby Venezuela. His rhythmically deft accompaniment can be heard on Alan Lomax’s classic 1962 recordings capturing the great calypsonian Growling Tiger in his prime (material available on Rounder’s “Neville Marcano: The Growling Tiger of Calypso”).
Charles notes that his family’s mixed origins reflect the diversity that’s characterized Trinidad since the 16th century. “It was the New York of the Caribbean,” he says. “It was the first place in the Western world to have Chinese immigrants. There were waves of Syrians and Lebanese, East Indians and a strong Venezuelan connection, which is why I play the cuatro.”
While he doesn’t usually travel with the cuatro (“It’s a very delicate instrument,” Charles says), he’s played it on all three of his recordings, as well as various hand percussion instruments like the djembe (which he does take on the road). The instruments all reflect Trinidad and Tobago’s multifarious history. Decades before the British took firm control of the island in 1802, it had been settled by a wave of planters from Haiti, and the first generations of calypsonians sang in patois quite similar to Haitian Creole.
“All my family understood patois,” Charles says. “My grandparents came from the Spanish side, and there’s a strong connection to Guadeloupe and Martinique, too.”
All this mixing led to a rich and uniquely Trinidadian culture, from Carnival and calypso to steel pan orchestras. Etienne’s father, Francis Charles, was an early member of Phase II Pan Groove, the first group to perform original compositions in the all-important steel band competitions.
Etienne joined the group himself in high school, though by the time he left for college at Florida State University, he was starting to explore jazz. When he was a freshman, Lee Morgan’s swaggering trumpet solo on the title track of John Coltrane’s great 1957 Blue Note album, “Blue Train,” seized his imagination, and he found an ideal mentor in pianist Marcus Roberts.
The celebrated blind pianist took Charles under his wing in an old school master-apprentice relationship. The trumpeter would pick up Roberts in the morning and take him on errands. They’d get meals together and spend most of the day in each other’s company, with the conversation often turning toward music.
“He always said make sure you put where you’re from in your music,” Charles says. “Marcus would say that going backward is the only way to go forwards, and you can hear the lineage in his music. I’ve studied Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, but I’ve also learned about the history of calypso, going back to shango rhythms from the Yoruba.”
After finishing his studies in Florida, Charles relocated to New York City, where he earned a master’s degree in jazz studies from Juilliard. He’s won numerous awards for his trumpet prowess and honed an increasingly confident sound steeped in his Trinidadian roots. His latest album, 2011’s “Kaiso” (Culture Shock Music), features several special guests, including Jamaican jazz piano master Monty Alexander, an important influence on Charles, who started honing his own version of island swing before the trumpeter was born.
More than a virtuoso, Charles is a master showman who is thriving after years of struggling to find a musical home. “I was lost for a long time,” Charles says. “People would ask, ‘Why are you playing jazz? You’re from Trinidad.’ And other people would say, ‘Why are you playing these rhythms? That’s not jazz.’
“But I’m not hearing those questions much anymore.”
etienne charles quintet
When: 7 p.m. Monday Where: Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz Tickets: $20-$23, 831-427-2227, www.kuumbwajazz.org Also: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Yoshi’s-San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore St., $14, 415- 655-5600, www.yoshis.com.
For the original report go to http://www.mercurynews.com/entertainment/ci_21174398/trumpeter-etienne-charles-comes-bay-area