Etienne Charles digs deep on new album
Carnival rings with a cutural celebration.
By Giovanni Russonello
March 21, 2019
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The trumpeter Etienne Charles stood in a Michigan State University classroom on a recent Tuesday evening — about 2,000 miles north and 50 degrees Fahrenheit south of his native Trinidad — and spoke to the undergrad big band that he directs here. The horns were having trouble nailing the inflections on “Chega De Saudade,” the bossa nova standard, so Mr. Charles sang the lines out loud, vocalizing a kind of hand-drum pattern.
Then he told the horns to play back their parts, this time with the syncopation sharpened up. “Right now we’re a little too far on the straight side,” he said. Emphatic rhythm has always been the engine oil of a jazz big band, but Mr. Charles has original ways of addressing that history, inherited from his own homeland traditions.
His earliest instructors taught primarily by ear, and built from the rhythm up. “Whatever songs we were singing in the choir — whether it was a Caribbean folk song, a chorale, a hymn — we would always learn the lyrics first and then say the lyrics in rhythm. And then after that they would teach us the notes,” he said over lunch at a restaurant near campus earlier that day. “We were always rhythmically on, as a result.”
Mr. Charles, 35, has been uniting Trinidadian methods with jazz ideas since he moved to the United States in 2002. He’s found that if you let them, they combine organically. Along the way, Mr. Charles has developed a magnetic sound on trumpet — clear and mellifluous, with a deep sense of economy; redolent of both Roy Hargrove and Chocolate Armenteros — and he’s becoming a composer to be reckoned with. Last year he became the newest member of the SFJAZZ Collective, contemporary jazz’s premier all-star band.
On Friday he will release “Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol. 1,” his most invigorating record yet. It grew out of trips home during Trinidad’s spring Carnival — an annual festival of parades and performances, with deep but still-vital roots in West African tradition. Its dances and songs peer back across centuries, into the years of black indentured servitude, slavery and, ultimately, freedom on the other side of the Atlantic.
In making “Carnival,” Mr. Charles brought a recording device along while he immersed himself in the festivities, then wrote a suite of original music. Unlike so much contemporary jazz that’s informed by global traditions, the album retains the atmosphere of restive jubilation that defines the actual event of Carnival. Mr. Charles’s band, featuring some of New York’s ace musicians, sometimes plays the pieces alone. Elsewhere, it accompanies field recordings of Carnival performers that Mr. Charles captured.
For the drummer Obed Calvaire, who appears on “Carnival” and also plays in the SFJAZZ Collective, this presented a fruitful challenge. “What was special for me was to try to come up with a groove that fit inside their way of phrasing without interrupting,” he said. He found himself marveling at “some of the ways those percussionists phrase.”
Mr. Charles’s recent albums have all been studiously arranged and passionately played, but at times they feel dangerously tidy — as if his rigorous approach has sanded off the tension and weight of the original tradition he’s addressing. On “Carnival,” he gets past that. He’s drawn the rhythms from the source, and left off the varnish.
“People ask me how I think about the difference between jazz and Caribbean music, but jazz is Caribbean music,” Mr. Charles said. “When I started writing the music for ‘Culture Shock,’ I thought that there was a difference, and that there was actual integration or fusion going on,” he said, referring to his debut record from 2006. “By the time I got to ‘Creole Soul’” — from 2013 — “I had realized that the diaspora is just one.”
“Carnival” opens with a gargle of voices, a honked car horn, the clattering of biscuit pans. You’re hearing the performance group 2001 Jab Molassie playing on the street in Trinidad; they’re soon joined by a jazz septet playing an elastic and almost inebriated melody, folding its energy directly into the pan percussion. In footage captured for a future documentary film, you can see 2001 Jab Molassie’s members, some wearing devil’s horns, covered in blue paint and dancing fiercely in the street. They’re invoking the spirit of Jab Molassie, a mythical slave who was burned to death in a vat of molasses, and whose revenge-seeking spirit is called upon by the pan drumming.
On the next two tracks, “Dame Lorraine” and “Moko Jumbie,” the jazz group plays alone, exhibiting a lyrical swagger and tight comportment on pieces inspired by Carnival’s masquerading tradition. Throughout the album, Mr. Charles puts a lot of power in the hands of his percussionists — whether it’s Mr. Calvaire on drum kit or the bamboo and iron percussionists that play on the five-track “Black Echo” suite. He subtly revisits the island’s historical developments along the way: Black Trinidadians took up bamboo percussion for a time in the 19th century after the British banned iron instruments, which are believed to have sacred powers.
Mr. Charles was born in Trinidad in 1983, and his musical talent showed early. He entered into calypso competitions at Carnival before he was a teenager, making up songs in the old tradition, usually built around social or political commentary. “For calypsos, you want to have something that’s socially apropos,” he said. “You learn not just how to sing a calypso, but how to study and analyze events.”
He added: “What I didn’t know then was, it was teaching me how to write.”
He moved to Tallahassee in 2002 to study at Florida State University, where he was mentored by the pianist Marcus Roberts. He hadn’t played much American jazz before enrolling, but he arrived bursting with talent and a professorial, inquisitive instinct. He was a good fit for the music. Somewhere along the line he discovered a 2000 album by the Puerto Rican-born tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, “Melaza,” on which Mr. Sánchez unlooses homeland strategies and rhythms in a heady, contemporary-jazz context. “That record changed my life,” Mr. Charles said.
He moved to New York in 2006 (he still remembers the date: August 25) to attend Juilliard’s small, rigorous grad program, and after receiving his degree he spent about a year kicking around the city’s jazz scene. But he was hired to teach at Michigan State soon after, and moved to a colder climate than he had ever thought he could tolerate.
In the decade he’s spent on the faculty, he has delved increasingly into research, partly thanks to the scores and field recordings available at Michigan State’s music library. In 2015 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, allowing him to take a few months off from teaching and return to Trinidad to research and write “Carnival.”
That was the most time he had spent back there since moving in 2002, but throughout his career he has maintained a connection to the island. He thinks of Trinidad less as a place from which to extract ideas, and more as a homeland that he can, in turn, help enrich. A few years ago he noticed that live brass bands, which had been a central component at Carnival, were on the wane, so he got one together and started leading it in the processions every year. (When we spoke, he had only recently returned from this year’s celebration.)
And on any trip home, Mr. Charles said, he tries to teach workshops at schools, prisons and youth-correctional facilities. Based on his experiences there, he’s hoping to establish some way of helping incarcerated musicians find jobs upon their release — perhaps by encouraging hotels to hire more live musicians.
“Real, good music needs to get to the people,” he said. “A lot of what’s funneled through the media doesn’t teach people about their power or their freedom. It’s time for that to change.”
Check out a review of “Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol. 1” by Etienne Charles on LatinJazznet.com.