Etienne Charles – NY Times Review
On a Move Toward Pop, and Denser Rhythms
Etienne Charles’s ‘Creole Soul’ Shifts Away From Mainstream
Etienne Charles, center, joined by Victor Provost, left, and Jacques Schwartz-Bart, celebrating a recording release at Le Poisson Rouge.
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: July 24, 2013
You may have heard that it’s hard for a jazz musician to find respect beyond what seems like a fixed number of close followers and students. Musicians can ignore that situation, or respond to it. Etienne Charles’s new recording, “Creole Soul,” on his label Culture Shock Music, is a smart response.
He’s a trumpeter from Trinidad who studied music at Florida State University and Juilliard, and his three previous albums have moved from informed and flexible post-’80s mainstream jazz, connected to the work of Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Roberts, toward Antillean rhythm and song, especially calypso. But his music is also moving from study toward entertainment, and he’s learned and evolved a lot while still young. On Tuesday night, for his recording-release show at Le Poisson Rouge, he played the first notes of the set at the of age of 29 and the last at 30.
There’s not a lot of furrowed-brow music on “Creole Soul.” It adds denser rhythm and slicker pop dynamics; there are fewer moments concerned with showing off jazz-school chops. It’s easy to listen to. It could and should extend his appeal to listeners who like R&B or various adult-contemporary offshoots of jazz. But it’s also intellectually sound, going deeper into Mr. Charles’s basic interest, which is the affinities between Caribbean music and music from the American South, New Orleans jazz in particular. It doesn’t feel too academic or too grasping, overscripted or shallow. He’s got it about as right as he can.
Tuesday’s show, with a full house, reconfirmed Mr. Charles’s drive toward pop, and toward more rhythm. His band included Victor Provost, a serious jazz improviser, on the steel pan; the trap-set drummer John Davis; and two more percussionists, Daniel Sadownick and D’Achee, or three in the valuable moments when Mr. Charles put down his trumpet and joined them. Here was a version of Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” slow and low impact, with strings of easygoing solos and a singalong; a version of the reggae standard “You Don’t Love Me (No No No),” originally adapted from a Bo Diddley song; a tune written for his parents called “The Folks” that combined romantic jazz-ballad tones with a persistent Caribbean beat landing on the two and four; and a blowout jam at the end, “Doin’ the Thing,” which could be described either as jazz explicitly for dancing or calypso with “I Got Rhythm” changes and tenacious improvising.
Some of these musicians have played with Mr. Charles for a while, some not. Some aren’t on the record itself. (The pianist Taylor Eigsti filled in for Kris Bowers, and Mr. Davis for Obed Calvaire; the tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwartz-Bart and the excellent, strong-toned bassist Ben Williams were on the album and at the show as well.) And so, while everyone played well — especially Mr. Charles, precise in tone, highly controlled in phrasing — this wasn’t necessarily a band whose internal chemistry had its own life.
But that might not matter. Mr. Charles seems legitimately committed to finding listeners who don’t necessarily need that kind of subtlety and intuition. Here, the songs and the persistence of the groove matter more. The trade-off is less mystery, more immediate pleasure. The only thing needed now is for the band go deeper into those pleasure spots, the rhythm and the songs and the riffs, to make the music more explosive, because at times one got the sense of a music that looks better on paper — or sounds better on record — than it does up close and in real time.