Etienne Charles Explores His Heritage on Creole Soul
Trumpeter Etienne Charles had plenty to celebrate on July 20 at Washington, D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns. His dazzling fourth disc, Creole Soul (Culture Shock Music), was scheduled to drop that following Tuesday. And as indicated by tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart’s impromptu rendering of “Happy Birthday,” Charles would be turning 30 that following Wednesday. With those significant milestones just around the bend, his Saturday evening set emitted an inescapable euphoria.
Charles specializes in feel-good fusion, but not necessarily the kind rooted in the plugged-in pyrotechnics of the 1970s. The trumpeter-percussionist combines rhythms and melodies reflective of his West Indian heritage inside a modern jazz framework. As a trumpeter, he excels at alternating between blustery lyricism and razor-sharp staccato riffs. His command of hand percussion (djembé and congas) brings to mind trumpeter-conguero Jerry González.
Charles led a scintillating ensemble that featured Schwarz-Bart and bassist Ben Williams—two musicians showcased on Creole Soul—plus pianist Taylor Eigsti, drummer John Davis and Victor Provost on steel pans. Focusing on music from Creole Soul as well as his discs Folklore (2009) and Kaiso (2011), Charles superbly underscored ethnomusicology with personalized fervor, particularly on the percolating “Roots.”
As frontline horn men, Charles and Schwarz-Bart often crafted tart harmonies that glided over Williams’ danceable bass grooves. Eigsti displayed a flair for the avant-garde at times by hammering dissonant harmonies and swirling figures reminiscent of the late Don Pullen, while Provost’s agile counterpoints on steel pans nodded to Charles’ Trinidadian upbringing.
For all the ebullience of songs such as “Roots,” “Folklore” and the reggae-blues classic “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No),” Charles hit high emotional marks during the quieter moments, such as his misty take on Winsford Devine’s “Memories” (dedicated to one of his late mentors, percussionist Ralph MacDonald) and a sexy interpretation of Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low.”
Hours earlier, Charles talked with DownBeat about the inspiration behind Creole Soul, his use of Caribbean rhythms and melodies, and his time spent studying with pianist Marcus Roberts.
DownBeat: What did you want to do thematically on Creole Soul that you didn’t do on your previous disc, Kaiso?
The main inspiration for Creole Soul came from the fact that I’d not written any original music in the past two or three years. The last time I really wrote new music was for Folklore. Kaiso was a collection of arrangements I did for old calypso songs.
The concept of the music is about the search of where [I] come from musically. We all know about the [African] diaspora, but it’s hard for us to document 10 generations back like some other people can. So I know that my great-grandfather is from Martinique; I know that I have Haitian roots; I know that I have roots in Montserrat and in Venezuela. I’ve been all up and down the West African coast, but it’s still difficult to know where we came from. So Creole Soul is about exploring the diaspora for my sound based upon where my people are from.
Explain the process of integrating so many folkloric touchstones into a modern jazz setting without the results sounding like a weak pastiche.
It’s about finding common grounds. From a drum standpoint, it’s about finding what grooves can go together. For instance, which clavés blend? A lot of calypso and merengue clavés actually blend; a lot of Cuban and Haitian clavés blend. But that’s a whole other longer story about the triangle within Cuba, Haiti and New Orleans.
Also, I write based upon the groove. I [will] listen to field recordings for a long time. Then I’ll try to learn a particular groove on the djembé, the congas or the drum set. Then I’ll just start singing bass lines while I’m playing to make sure that it locks right in. From there, I’ll try to hear a melody. Or I might take the contour of a melody based upon the way a singer would sing and try to mimic it on the trumpet or piano.
Marcus Roberts has played a huge role in your development. How did you start studying with him? And what are some of the most lasting lessons you got from him?
I was at Florida State University for my undergraduate. During my second year, [Marcus] was chosen to be the Housewright scholar. At that time, the Wynton Marsalis Quartet was one of my favorite groups. Live At Blues Alley was my favorite record. When Marcus came, I started getting into his recordings like Deep In The Shed. He’s very candid and told me exactly what I needed to work on. Over three years, our relationship became sort of master-apprentice. I would completely help him out with everyday chores. Then we would play music. He even taught me trumpet-developing technique, based upon what he learned from playing with Wynton. He said, “Make sure you learn how to play Bach’s music. If you can play Bach, you can play anything.”
Over the years, I learned that you always have to play “you.” In whatever you play, always show where you’re from and what you connect with the strongest. So for me, it’s the bloodlines of my family, and the places where my blood is from. He also taught me how to write music. He had me checking out a lot of [Thelonious] Monk and Duke Ellington. He also had me playing a lot of piano. My first record, Culture Shock, actually started out as a project from my senior year. The project was to write a suite of music based upon my personal life experiences.