Etienne Charles: Blowing down walls

Etienne Charles

While the young dans of soca continue to beat at the gates of global success, one of their peers, a dude in trademark bebop porkpie and nerd glasses is not so quietly straddling the top of the Jazzweek charts for the third week running, with his latest album Creole Soul, Trinidad’s Guardian reports. 

If Jazzweek rings no bells, suffice it to mention that when he hit the numero uno spot, Etienne Charles, jazz trumpeter, arranger, composer and assistant professor of jazz trumpet at Michigan State University, rode high above George Benson (4th), Terence Blanchard (5th) and compay Chucho Valdes (13th).

Local jazz critic Nigel Campbell has hailed Creole Soul as Charles’ “electric album” (for its use of electric guitar), drawing comparisons both with Bob Dylan’s 1965 Bringing It All Back Home and maybe more relevantly, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew 1969/70. In writing about Creole Soul, New York Times critic Ben Ratcliff focuses on the exploration of “the affinities between Caribbean music and music from the American South, New Orleans in particular.”

Whatever your idiosyncratic take on jazz, as the Big Apple man puts it: “He’s got it about as right as he can.”

The T&T Guardian managed to catch up with firefly “Young Charlo,” while he was driving en route to Cincinnati, on one leg of his cross- country tour, which has now taken him to the west coast home of Latin-jazz—San Francisco’s Bay Area.

What anyone who’s been fortunate enough to hear Charles live will have experienced, is that with all his study (Florida State, Juilliard) his music kicks, or as he puts it, is “groove-oriented.” For him “bringing the dance element back is important, he enjoys seeing “people tapping their feet” and moving on the groove.

Given his Caribbean antecedents (great-grandfather Clement Monlouis from Martinique, who settled in Mayaro; grandfather Ralph Charles, whose cuatro can be heard on Growling Tiger recordings; and father Francis, who played with Phase II) and his own childhood forays into pan before being given his first trumpet aged ten, moving with the rhythms is a must: “To me the music must dance.”

Charles has founded his playing on the “myriad rhythms” of the Americas, all of which have roots in African-derived sacred rituals. “We need to remind people about the rituals that fed this music. If you go to a vodou or Shango yard …if you listen to bomba, plena, rumba, they all have specific dance moves. We’ve taken those grooves, and people sit down! It don’t make sense.”

He’s sceptical about the purist approach to jazz: “Using ‘pure’ or ‘purist’ and ‘Jazz in the same sentence is like saying ‘purebred pothound.’ Jazz is a musical mongrel, a sonic Creole. The music came from different cultures exchanging in a new place. I don’t know why the term jazz stuck for all these years, it used to change every so often (ragtime, swing, bebop). Anyone who considers themselves a ‘jazz purist’ is obviously confused, or, only knows the history from a certain point.”

Charles’ own definition of jazz (“..the blues-based improvisational music that developed in New Orleans, fusing Afro-Caribbean, Native American, Central American and European sounds”) echoes theories of creolisation, syncretism and transculturation, which have been circulating since the early 20th century.

It’s quite possible that Creole Soul may be regarded as a landmark album in his career, not so much for introducing electric instrumentation, but rather for the introduction of other regional rhythms, like Haitian kongo (on the title track) and mascaron (along with bomba and syncopation on Midnight) or the Martiniquan belair (Roots) in addition to the calypso we’ve been hearing since his first album, Culture Shock. This project has translated into a popular danceable music, far removed from the cerebral exercise commonly associated with jazz.

Although “constant study” of regional and diasporic roots (“So much rhythm out there. I do believe more musicians should be putting it in there. A big part of my study involves figuring out ways to compose for these grooves as well as orchestrating them”) preceded Creole Soul, it’s no concept album. “Let go, stop thinking about it…as opposed to letting the music talk to you,” was the vibe he went with. And if the balance of the album (four covers—Winsford Devine’s Memories, Marley’s Turn Your Lights Down Low, Monk’s Green Chimneys and the dawn Penn version of an old Bo Diddley song You Don’t Love Me) and four original compositions, seems calculated, it wasn’t.

For the original report go to

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