Etienne Charles & Folklore: Jazz…with a West Indian Accent

“Etienne Charles exhibits both an authentic preservation of the music of his native culture of Trinidad as a composer and bandleader, while broadening our scope of understanding through the collaborative sound of American jazz as it meets new colors, new textures, and new motifs across the world. It will certainly bring more of our public into the jazz audience.”

Marcus Roberts, world-renowned jazz pianist and recording artist

On a large stage in front of a large crowd by a sandy beach, Etienne Charles delivered the first part of his prodigal return to Trinidad and Tobago. A hot night for hot jazz. The listener’s mind is relaxed in the Tobago air, but alert enough to discern excellence at the “Experience.” The posture says, “Ah come back home”, the sound says, “Ah reachin’.”

The attitude is there: the stingy brim fedora on his head, like the porkpie hat of Lester Young or the Sinatra fedora in the ’50s, acts as a crown, a signpost and symbol of differing superiority, a trademark. He is jazz with a West Indian accent. Meanwhile, there exists a cabal of whiners claiming jazz in Trinidad and Tobago, musicians really, but only complaining. Periodic performances never in juxtaposition with excellence hence the stasis of the third world is their burden. Etienne is on another plane, literally and figuratively.

Etienne Charles © Maria Nunes
Photo: © Maria Nunes

On a too small stage perched too high for comfort in the courtyard of his alma mater, Etienne Charles delivered the second part of his prodigal return to Trinidad and Tobago. Delivering his suite of music influenced and enriched by the folklore of these islands, Etienne continued with the cross-fertilization exercise so artfully begun on Pigeon Point on Sunday, April 25, 2010. In Trinidad and Tobago, the American-based musicians became native, accustomed and comfortable with the rhythms and melodies of the islands, and refining the intermarriage of swing, blues, calypso, Africa and New Orleans, here and there. Drummer, John Davis and bassists, Luques Curtis (in Tobago) and Burniss Earl Travis II (in Trinidad) have adapted well. Their command of the native rhythm is both a testament to practice and scholarship, and the influence of bandleader Charles.

Folklore the CD is a suite of music that locates the rhythm of Trinidad with the dissonances and nuances of American jazz; a statement exploring the moods, the colours, the harmonies, and the rhythms of Trinidad cultural heritage. It is reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s picturesque, dramatic, and expressive tone poem, A Drum is A Woman, and more contemporaneously, Wynton Marsalis’s 3-volume Blues cycle, Soul Gestures In Southern Blue.

On the Millennium Stage in the US capital in front of expiring local diplomacy, Etienne Charles proved to be an exportable commodity with high profit potential: talent and presence make for an audience appreciating mix that can only augur well for the virtuoso. Using some of the American-based musicians that he recorded his CD Folklore with, Etienne returned the “imperial gaze” by rendering obsolete the definitions of jazz for these trained musicians; definitions borne of persistence and practice in the land of jazz.

On the Queen’s Hall stage in the Trinidad capital awaiting a tropical storm, Etienne Charles melds the sounds and rhythms of New Orleans and the African-Caribbean with a matured horn sound that places him permanently at the top of the heap of this generation’s Caribbean jazzists. Etienne has augmented his Caribbean Jazz vision with the chops of non-Caribbean musicians — save percussionist Junior Noel from Moyenne — who add that element of improvised jazz excellence that is in short supply here. Drummer John Davis from Jacksonville, Florida played a jazz solo on “Santimanité” that showed this writer that in Trinidad, I have been hearing rock ‘n’ roll drum solos all along! That metronomic beat with some flashy histrionics was compared to John’s articulated polyrhythms and independence of arms and legs to ride the rhythm yet improvise on time signatures.

The trumpet, that portable instrument seems to be the identifying symbol of jazz excellence. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Wynton Marsalis stand as landmarks in successive generations of jazz influence leaders. In Trinidad, trumpet ace Errol Ince would parallel the Davis era, so the geometry of influence is complete with the comparisons between a still developing Charles and a Marsalis at his brilliant and prolific best.

Walk tall my brother, for in your shoes walks a pioneer. Your footsteps must signal the direction of supposed influence in a land of writing excellence, yet to be transferred to non-pan music. That horn and its sound must reach beyond concert stages here and everywhere, and interact with other musicians and the public, all with a West Indian accent.


(October 2010)

© 2010, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.