Trinidadian-born trumpeter Etienne Charles has made it a point to share the culture of his native homeland with the world through music, whether it is writing songs on cuatro or steel pan, incorporating Kweyol chants on the opening track to his latest album Creole Soul
(Culture Shock, 2013), or playing with an undeniable Caribbean bounce that caused the audience of Dizzy's Club Coca Cola to form a conga line through the venue during his album release show for Kaiso
(Culture Shock, 2011). Since his debut, Culture Shock
(Self Produced, 2006), Charles has been showing audiences that he is able to seamlessly fuse straight-ahead and Caribbean music to create an innovative sound that is deeply rooted in the tradition.
Etienne Charles comes from a strong lineage of musicians that can be traced to his great grandfather, who played banjo and violin. His grandfather, Ralph Charles, was a cuatro player who recorded with the calypsonian Growling Tiger. Both his father and uncle were members of the steel orchestra Phase II Pan Groove, which won national Panorama competitions back-to-back in 1987 and '88. By the time he was 10, the young Charles would also join Phase II.
As a sideman, Charles has recorded or performed alongside Monty Alexander
, Wynton Marsalis
, Marcus Roberts
, Roberta Flack, Maria Schneider
, The Count Basie
Orchestra, and the legendary calypsonian Lord Blakie, for whom he played drums. "At the time, I knew [Lord Blakie] was a legend and he had big hits," recalls Charles. "But I know [more] about Calypso now, so I wish I could have played with him now, but he's no longer with us. I wish I had asked him questions. I didn't really get a chance to interact with him other than at the rehearsal."
Another luminary musical figure that helped Charles come up as a musician was the late percussionist Ralph McDonald, who he honors with a song made famous by The Mighty Sparrow, "Memories."
"He was a special spirit and I'm very lucky to [have] been around him as much as I was in the last five or six years of his life," remembers Charles. "He showed me so much about playing music and he brought me to his house. Every time there was a family get-together he would invite me over and there was always food. He was that mentor that shows you how life is supposed to be outside of music and how music is supposed to be a part of your life. He definitely helped me a lot. He was on all my previous records [except] this one because he passed away before we recorded. The session for me was uniquely emotional because you knew something had come to an end. But out of it, something had come of age."
While the Great American Songbook has been a huge staple for the idiom, it is also not uncommon for musicians to include songs outside of the genre. But Charles has the unique challenge of having a repertoire that does not have its roots in the United States. The Robert Glasper
Experiment has interpreted tunes by J Dilla, The Bad Plus
has covered Blondie, Brad Mehldau
has played songs from Radiohead, and collectively all three acts have performed and recorded songs by Nirvana. The task is different and seemingly harder when the jazz artist is playing tunes from calypsonians like Lord Pretender, Lord Blakie, Lord Melody, The Duke of Iron, and The Mighty Sparrow. Although these great calypso artists are revered as legends in the Caribbean, they do not enjoy the same status in the United States. "It's one of the challenges of being a jazz musician whose standard repertoire is not just the American Songbook," Charles reveals. "You tell somebody you're about to play a song by George Gershwin
, or a song by Harold Arlen, and the [audience] immediately knows. But when I say I'm about to play a song by the Duke of Iron or Lord Kitchener, people are just like 'Huh?'"
But not all music with from the Caribbean islands is lost to the public. "I've been pleasantly surprised that a lot of people know Lord Kitchener's music," Charles continues. "They know Mighty Sparrow's music, and they know Lord Melody's music because of his association with Harry Belafonte
. So it's been a blessingI mean everyone knows Bob Marley
's music. Even on other planets, people are familiar with Bob Marley's music."
"We just play and that's our job as musicians, to advocate for these composers that have passed away and keep their music alive," continues Charles. "Be it Duke Ellington
or be it Lord Kitchener. I think that the fact the music [sounds] beautiful is what will help us to keep going. Even though people may not be familiar with the composer, eventually they will be back in there with them."
With Creole Soul
, Charles advocates composers from Bob Marley, Thelonious Monk
, Winsford Devine, and Bo Diddley while penning six of his own compositions. It features the Marley classic "Turn Your Lights Down Low," a song that Charles has long been a part of Charles' repertoire, and Monk's "Green Chimney." Perhaps a song that best captures the mood of the Creole Soul is the Bo Diddley tune "You Don't Love Me," a song played as a blues by artists like Willie Cobbs and Junior Wells, as a rocksteady for reggae artist Dawn Penn, and now a jazz tune by Charles. Dawn Penn's version can still be heard on movies and TV commercials, and has been sampled by artists from Lilly Allen, Wu Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah, Beyonce and Rhianna. It is a song that was originally written as a blues that has enjoyed life in other genres giving it a sort of creole soul.Creole Soul
is also about a return to composition for Charles. "I hadn't written music since Folklore (Self Produced, 2009), so I was like 'OK, time to write some music,'" says Charles. "It's a direct reflection of what I've been listening to. I've been listening to a lot of French Caribbean music, a lot of music from Martinique, and Haitian music."
For songs like "Turn Your Lights Down Low," "Green Chimneys," "You Don't Love Me" and "Memories," Charles says that he wanted to "accentuate the idea of mixed cultures."
"The music is about being of a mixed culture or mixed heritage," Charles reveals. "It's about the many many things that make us who we are."
One facet that makes Charles who he is and defines his music is dancing. Music and dance always go together. There are still a few who remember when swing was also considered a dance and not just the sound of Elvin Jones
' drum set. Even within classical western music, the idea of dancing to music is prevalent. Gigues don't just serve as Baroque classical pieces that conservatory students have to learn for juries, they are the 17th century equivalent of today's Harlem Shake. "I grew up every time I heard music, there was dancing involved, every single time," recalls Charles. "My sister's a dancer, [so] every time I went to her dancer concerts there were always African drummers playing, or there were always music playing and they would dance to the music. So I was accustomed to seeing movement with soundthey always go together. Funnily enough, my favorite gigs are the ones where we're playing with the specific purpose of people dancing. I believe it's more challenging to keep people on the dance floor than [keeping] them interested in a concert hall."
"I always encourage people if they feel like dancing to get up and dance. I'm not one of those people who [will] get offended if you decide to shout and make some noise. I'm always encouraging them; to me, the most fun I have is when people actually get up and dance. Because it's an exchange of energy, we're playing and they're dancing, and we're going back and forth."
"But it's a challenge, and specifically our goal is to make people tap their toes, bounce their heads, and snap their fingers, shake their butts, and get up and move. That's our purpose, that's what we come out to do. Be it swing, calypso, reggae, funk, everything we play we try to make as deep in the groove as possible so that people feel the urge to get up and bounce. The bounce to me is everything in music. For me, it's about dancingespecially Caribbean music, it's about making that booty shake."
Charles' rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimneys" is one example of the bounce he commands. A bounce that is closely related to what Jelly Roll Morton
calls "The Spanish Tinge."
"With 'Green Chimneys' it's almost like a habanera type rhythm, which is common sense based on where Monk grew up in San Juan Hill," comments Charles. "He must have [heard] calypso music. Caribbean music and New Orleans is all about beat four, [so] I connected the bass line and the melody on beat four to help accentuate that. A lot of people play 'Green Chimneys' as a second line beat. But we did it with a calypso beat instead of second line."
Charles' conviction about the bounce and dancing go so deep that he also shares it to his students at Michigan State University where he is an Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies. "I was teaching this camp at Michigan State," recalls Charles. "I was conducting one of the big bands at the camp. I do this also with my university studentsI teach them how to dance to the music. I will put the original recording on and I will make them dance. Why? If you don't know how to dance, you don't know how to make somebody dance. If you don't know how to dance, there's no way you know why that person wrote [the] music to connect to the bounceif it's dance music."
"If you're talking about Count Basie
's music, that's dance music. A lot of Duke Ellington
's recordsthat's based on dance rhythms. You talk about calypso, funk and R&B; that's all dance rhythms. So I'll put on 'September' and I'll make them two-step so they learn how to two-step to Earth, Wind & Fire. Then I'll keep that same tempo and put on a Count Basie [record] so they're two stepping to Basie, then it connects to them that it's the same two-beat vibe. Then I'll take something from The Meters
like 'Hey Pocky A-Way' and make them two- step to that, take some calypso and make them two-step to that. I sit them back down and we play the tune and it grooves like 28 times better. It immediately connects to the body and the brain, you immediately know where to syncopate and where the bounce [is]. It's probably one of my most helpful tools as a teacher."
Musicians that are featured on Creole Soul
that help him achieve his bounce are tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart
, alto saxophonist Brian Hogans
, guitarist Alex Wintz
, pianist Kris Bowers
, former Juilliard classmate Ben Williams
on bass, drummer Obed Calvaire
, percussionists D'Achee and Daniel Sadownick
, and a guest appearance from voodoo priest Erol Josue, on vocals.
"I wrote the music with these musicians specifically in mind," says Charles. "Because I've been playing with them for so many years, I know that these are the things that would feature them well and these are the things that they would naturally add on to. On 'Creole,' a Haitian tuneObed's Haitian! So that was right up his alley. I told him that I wanted that Haitian thing and he was like 'Yeah, yeah, yeah!' and it was natural! Then you have Kris Bowers
[who] is a great jazz player and an unbelievable pianist. But he can also sit down at the Fender Rhodes [and] bring that color to it. Alex Wintz
, Jacques Schwarz-Bart
, and all those guys, we've been playing together for years now. Ben Williams
has been one of my best friends. We went to school together."
"I heard Alex on Brian Hogans
' record. Brian and I have been playing together for years so he was a natural fit. He came into the session and just killed it. D'Achee the percussionist and I have [also] been playing together for years. It's really a band record, when I listen to it I actually feel the love. I feel like it's just us hanging out in the studio and we played some music."
Though Charles is a trumpeter, he is also proficient in playing cuatro and the steel pan. On, Folklore
, Charles composed the music on cuatro and steel pan. For the new album, he wrote all the tunes sitting behind the piano except for "Doin' the Thing," which is a tribute to trumpeter Blue Mitchell
. Writing the music on cuatro and steel pan helps keep ground the music to its Caribbean roots. Certain timbres from instruments that are native to the Caribbean certainly help give life to the composition process. But another avenue that is essential to Caribbean music is call and response, of which Charles is instinctively mindful when he writes.
"I always think about call-and-response when I write, because it makes the music conversational," says Charles. "It's engrained in me as a musician and composer who is coming out of the African Diaspora and the Caribbean. It's engrained in me that music must have call-and-response. It's one of the defining characteristics of jazz. It's definitely one of the defining characteristics of African Diaspora music or black music.
"With the first track, 'Creole,' the first thing I wrote was the lavway. Lavway means the hook or the theme. It's a word we use in Trinidad to refer to as the chorus or the theme. An example of a lavway would be Michael Jackson
[singing], 'Billie Jean is not my lover.' The lavway of 'Creole' was based on a chant and it was the first thing that I wrote. The rest of the tune came out of that. It was a groove that we improvise over knowing that the lavway was going to come in. We bring in the lavway and improvise on top of the lavway. That's exactly what they used to do in the circles at Trinidad."
"During improvisation call and response happens naturally, but when I write I try to make sure I put it in. In the large scheme of the tune the call and response goes from Eb minor to Gb major. So it goes from dark to light. Basically, that's the call-and- response."
"I definitely think call and response is one of my [most] important parts of my writing. I looked at Thelonious Monk, and he's all about call-and-response. I listened to Horace Silver
and Duke Ellington-Freddie Hubbard
's writing is very call-and-response based between the rhythm section and the horns. Nat Adderley
's writingyou can go down the list...David Sanchez
. Their writing is definitely heavily based on that part of the tradition. It goes back to gospel, the preacher and the congregation. The chantwell and the tribe, it all comes back to the improvisations with chants going."
But Creole Soul
isn't just limited to Caribbean traditions, Etienne Charles also shows that he is adept to modern compositional tools as well. "I wrote the bass line for 'The Folks' with a twelve-tone row," explains Charles. "I kind of hid in a way that makes it normal to hear. I wrote it from three formal patterns C, G, B, Eb, then Ab, Bb, Db, F, and then F#, E, A, B. So it's three sets of tones of four that don't repeat themselves. Then I put chords to it that would naturally work harmonically so they completely conceal the fact that the bass line is [based] from a twelve-tone row. That's basically a conversation between two peoplemy parents. The way the melody works, they move parallel, then contrary, then they move parallel again. It's about how two people move and live together."
Etienne Charles, Creole Soul
(Culture Shock, 2013)
Etienne Charles, Kaiso
(Culture Shock, 2011)
Etienne Charles, Folklore
(Self Produced, 2009)Scotty Barnhart
, Say it Plain
(Dig Music, 2009)Cynthia Scott
. Dream for One Bright World
Ralph McDonald, Mixty Motions
Etienne Charles, Culture Shock
(Self Produced, 2006).Photo Credit
Courtesy of Etienne Charles