With his simple declaration to this writer, “sound is my art…I just try to create,” Trinidadian jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles puts into context his role of creator and producer in relation to his latest recording Creole Soul, out now on Culture Shock Music and distributed in North America by RED/Sony Music Entertainment. This new album, previewed earlier this year in Tobago at Jazz on the Beach at Mt Irvine reveals to this writer an evolution of his art that parallels our most distinguished author and the jazz idiom’s most eclectic trumpeter and influence.
The fourth studio album from this US-based musician and teacher bristles with a kind of energy that comes from the realization that one has gone beyond; beyond the usual expectations of a Caribbean existence, beyond the boundary of the usual sonic influences that have paved the way for this jazz lion. The familiar tropes of calypso rhythm inflected jazz that have been a hallmark of our jazz here for decades—from Duke Ellington’s A Drum is a Woman (1956) to Rupert Clemendore’s Le Jazz Trinidad (1961) and Dizzy Gillespie’s Jambo Caribe (1964)—are abandoned for a modern post-bop and jazz fusion take on the material and all its thematic and stylistic influences in the New World.
Thematically, this should come as no surprise. Charles has posited that the vision of this album is the showcasing of the influences of all this music in the African diaspora, a melting pot of sounds that shapes and determines who he is as a musician and who we are as a people. Charles tells New York-based jazz writer Eric Sandler:
Creole to me means a world within a world…I’m Trinidadian, but being Trinidadian means that I have many different cultural influences as well as many different influences based on my bloodline.
This statement echoes a famous stanza of Derek Walcott’s: “I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me/and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” We are all creole.
The artistic parallel does not stop there. Deciphering an arc in the themes of the four albums of Charles to date, one sees in Culture Shock (2006)—the name says it all—a musical diary of the newly minted artist in his New World of America. Folklore (2009), the suite based on local legends and Kaiso (2011) are his “Trinidad” albums; going back to the source of inspiration. Now, with Creole Soul, he takes flight. A parallel to VS Naipaul: after his first four books set in Trinidad, he began to travel—“…my writing ambition grew. But when it was over I felt I had done all that I could do with my island material. No matter how much I meditated on it, no further fiction would come…”—ultimately to a Nobel prize. Where Charles will go from here is the surprise that jazz holds in store for listeners.
On this recording, there are two distinctive threads, the original compositions and the covers. On the original compositions, we can hear the rhythmic melange that defines a creole soul. Haitian mascaron dance groove meets bomba rhythms and jazz syncopation on “Midnight” (an ode to the end of day), “The Folks” (a dedication to this parents) incorporating calypso’s syncopated bass with rhythm & blues, and “Doin’ The Thing” featuring jump blues and calypso, all majestically anchored by Grammy award-winning bassist Ben Williams and drummer Obed Calvaire.
Charles strategically makes use of the covers: Bob Marley’s “Turn the Lights Down Low” and the Dawn Penn popularized “You Don’t Love Me (No No No)” (the latter serendipitously being performed for millions of television viewers on the BET Awards 2013 in June), position this CD to be heard in the right places by the right ears. Reggae/dancehall music is embedded into mainstream consciousness to a greater extent than calypso. The reverential cover of Winsford ‘Joker’ Devine’s “Memories” and the bouncy cover of Thelonius Monk’s “Green Chimneys” (with the “distinctive calypso lope to the beat” that relocates Monk in the old San Juan Hill district of Caribbean New York) complete this West Indian quartet of memorable melodies and artistic legacies that are easily saleable.
Creole Soul may also be considered as Charles’ electric album. Landmark distinctions in popular music have been made by pioneers. Dylan going electric in 1965 with Bringing It All Back Home, and Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew in 1969/70 transformed their respective genres by utilising electric instruments. Charles, on this CD, introduces listeners to the sounds of the electric guitar marking a shift in his sound, previously all acoustic.
The album opener “Creole” (a reflection on his first Haitian sojourn in 2012), featuring the Haitian singer and Houngan Erol Josué combines the kongo drum rhythm of northern Haiti with the urgent funky electric guitar of Alex Wintz that forces one to get up and dance. This is spirit moving feet. This is improvised joy. This is jazz in the Caribbean. Kris Bowers’ meandering Fender Rhodes on “The Folks” signals that the intention is to keep the arrangements and sound modern. The electric guitar and piano are again repeated on “Roots” (an ode to his family roots) featuring the Martiniquan belair rhythm; the French Caribbean rhythms seem to lend a place for the electric ascendance of Etienne Charles.
An artist/producer subliminally makes commercial decisions that affect aesthetic outcomes. Charles disagrees, however:
I didn’t really think about business when I was writing the music or choosing the tunes. Business happens after the music is made. Business folks will decide based on what they hear if it’s worth selling. If we’re not happy with what we record, we won’t sell it.
The sum of these songs says otherwise. That said, this CD can have an impact on the consideration of music from these islands. Like Geoffrey Holder a generation before who had a significant impact on Trinidad music in the American diaspora (specifically steel pan) via House of Flowers before Belafonte’s Calypso, Creole Soul is in that mould of trend setter. Ideas of jazz globalization, Caribbean transnation, diaspora—which Charles suggests is the arithmetic of creolization—as formulae to contextualise this recording cloud the simple fact that this is a exceptional record by an artist who has grown technically in both his playing and improvisation. We all are creole!
- An edited version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian
- An edited version of this article appears on the website All•About•Jazz
© 2013, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.