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Etienne Charles Debuts As A Big Band Leader With 'Creole Orchestra,' Arriving June 14 On Culture Shock Records

Etienne Charles Debuts As A Big Band Leader With 'Creole Orchestra,' Arriving June 14 On Culture Shock Records

Courtesy Luigi Creese


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In many musical situations the Arranger has become the ghost. One of the first working on a project and many times the last to be recognized. (No more.)
—Etienne Charles
Etienne Charles
Etienne Charles presents himself to the jazz world as an accomplished large-ensemble arranger with Creole Orchestra, set for a June 14 release on his own Culture Shock imprint. The album is the premiere of the titular band, 22 musicians strong and specializing in executing the Trinbagonian trumpeter’s elaborate charts.

Long hailed for his work as a trumpeter, composer, and improviser, as well as for his deep knowledge of rhythms from his native Trinidad & Tobago and around the Eastern Caribbean, Charles has mostly worked with small combos over his nearly 20-year career. He had written only a few pieces for large ensemble when vocalist Rene Marie tasked him with arranging for a full set of big band tunes to take on the road.

That was “baptism by fire,” Charles recalls. “Okay, now I’m a big band writer.” And, as Creole Orchestra makes clear, he is a shrewd and inventive one. It’s not just anyone who can orchestrate both the classic swing anthem “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and Bell Biv Devoe’s new jack swing hit “Poison” with equal flair and crispness. Those are just two of the many dimensions Charles explores on the album.

Marie herself is a featured guest, taking the vocal spotlight for four of the 13 tracks—including “I Wanna Be Evil,” Eartha Kitt’s theme song that was the centerpiece of Marie and Charles’s first collaboration (her 2013 album of the same name), as well as the jazz standard “Centerpiece” and two of her own originals. Rapper Brandon Rose and turntablist DJ Logic appear together on “Poison,” connecting Charles’s arrangement with the song’s hip-hop roots.

The ensemble and its various soloists put in exemplary work as well. Lead trumpeter Jumaane Smith and trombonist Michael Dease both give standout performances on Monty Alexander’s reggae-spiced “Think Twice”; bassist Ben Williams wows with his soulful improv on the hard-swinging “Night Train”; while Charles, alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, and pianist Sullivan Fortner illuminate the leader’s calypso “Douens.”

The real stars of Creole Orchestra, of course, are Charles’s sterling charts. “In many musical situations the Arranger has become the ghost,” he writes in the album notes. “One of the first working on a project and many times the last to be recognized.” No more.

Etienne Charles was born July 24, 1983 in Port-of-Spain, the capital city of the island nation of Trinidad & Tobago. Carrying the torch of Caribbean musical traditions in all their eclectic facets is, itself, a family tradition for the Charleses. Etienne’s father, Francis, was both a member of the Trinidadian steel band Phase II Pan Groove and the owner of a colossal record collection, and Etienne thus grew up soaking in music. He learned to play trumpet as a boy, and by high school he, too, was a member of Phase II Pan Groove.

But jazz had gotten Etienne’s attention, and he moved to the United States in 2002 to matriculate at Florida State University—where he found his way to the celebrated pianist and educator Marcus Roberts, who became his mentor. He quickly gained not only a mastery of the jazz tradition, but the recognition to prove it. Charles placed second at the 2005 International Trumpet Guild Jazz Competition in Bangkok, Thailand, then took first place a year later at the U.S. National Trumpet Competition in Fairfax, Virginia. He was also awarded a full scholarship to The Juilliard School of Music, where he earned both a master’s degree and an entrée into the cutthroat New York jazz scene.

Charles not only survived but thrived in that scene, recording and performing with artists ranging from Maria Schneider to Wynton Marsalis to Rene Marie. He also made a striking impression as a leader, injecting his encyclopedic knowledge of Caribbean music and rhythms into an improvised jazz context. He recorded his debut album Culture Shock in 2006 and followed it with nine more, of which Creole Orchestra is the latest.

Etienne Charles will be appearing at Berklee College of Music, Boston, 4/11; California State University East Bay, Hayward, 4/12; Wortham Center, Houston, 4/19 (world premiere of “Earth Tones”); Omaha (NE) Performing Arts, 4/26; The Townhouse, Los Angeles, CA, 5/2; Mt. Hood Jazz Festival, Portland, OR, 5/4; Le Taquin, Toulouse, France, 5/11-15; Spoleto Festival, Charleston, SC (with Terri Lyne Carrington New Standards), 5/26; SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco (with Rene Marie), 6/10; Dizzy’s, NYC, 6/14-16; Fête de la Musique, North Beach Bandshell, Miami Beach, FL, 6/21; Caramoor Festival, Katonah, NY (with Rene Marie), 7/18; Carlyle Room, Washington, DC, 7/26; Riverside Center for the Arts, Fredericksburg, VA, 7/27; JAS Café, Aspen, CO, 8/10; Missy Lane’s Assembly Room, Durham, NC, 10/11-12.

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Track Listing

Old School;Poison; Think Twice; I Wanna Be Evil; Holy City; Ten to One is Murder; Centerpiece; Douens; A Shade of Jade; Colorado River Song; Stompin' at the Savoy; Take my breath away; Night Train.


Alex Wintz
Ben Williams
bass, electric
Seth Ebersole
Brian Hogans
saxophone, alto
Godwin Louis
Walter Cano
Dion Tucker
Corey Wilcox
Chris Glassman
John Ellis
saxophone, tenor
Michael Dease
DJ Logic
Rene Marie
Additional Instrumentation

Michael Thomas: saxophone; Paul Nedzela: baritone saxophone; Gina Izzo: flute; Etienne Charles: percussion; Jorge Glem: cuatro; Pascual Landeau: marac; Brandon Rose: vocals.

Album information

Title: Creole Orchestra Featuring René Marie | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: Culture Shock Music






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