Jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles comes to Bay Area
By Andrew Gilbert | August 9, 2013 | San Jose Mercury News
Trumpeter Etienne Charles is taking jazz places it’s never been before.
The first sound you hear on his audacious new album “Creole Soul” (Culture Shock Music) is the eerie cry of renowned Vodou priest Erol Josue. His Haitian Creole chant, or kweyol, transitions seamlessly into the kongo groove of the title track, a funky piece that perfectly illustrates Charles’ encompassing pan-Caribbean vision.
Hailing from Trinidad, the trumpeter has been making waves in New York City over the past few years while steadily expanding his already capacious rhythmic palette, adding roots rhythms from across the polyglot Caribbean. He performs a series of gigs around the Bay Area next week, including Monday at Kuumbwa, Tuesday at Piedmont Piano in Oakland, and Wednesday at the Blackbird Tavern in downtown San Jose.
“My four records are completely different,” says Charles, 30. “A lot of people do the same record over and over, but I’m interested in so many different sounds. ‘Creole Soul’ came about because I was listening to Martiniquean field recordings and Haitian Vodou music.
“Of course, calypso is stuck in my head forever, and I’m always listening to Horace Silver, Monk, and a lot of straight up jazz composers who write memorable melodies. That’s what I want to write as well.”
The most striking thing about Charles’ music isn’t the rhythmic diversity; it’s the way he crafts singsong themes that provide his bandmates with meaty lines for improvisation. Trained at Juilliard, he possesses a bright, gleaming tone and an entertainer’s gift for connecting with audiences. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also an expert percussionist who joins the rhythm section whenever he puts down his horn.
On a scene rife with technically commanding players, Charles has found other ways to dazzle his listeners. Rather than showcasing virtuosity, his music thrives as a group enterprise united by an unusually sweeping investigation of Afro-Caribbean grooves.
“The older you get, the more you know yourself and the less you try to prove yourself,” Charles says. “You can really show your skin. The music’s not just about me. For the musicians I’ve been playing with, it’s a canvas for them to be themselves. The group vibe continues to get stronger.”
The surest sign that Charles has hit creative pay dirt is that he’s attracted a dedicated cadre of New York’s finest players. The band he brings to the West Coast includes Israeli-born guitarist Gilad Hekselman, a rising star who’s released three acclaimed albums of his own; pianist Victor Gould, a recent graduate of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz; Esperanza Spalding-recommended drummer John Davis and bassist Ben Williams.
The winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Bass Competition, Williams earned a Grammy Award last year as a member of Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. He’s also toured with his own group Sound Effect since the release of his impressive 2011 debut album “State of Art” (Concord Music Group), a band that Charles recorded with and joins on gigs as a percussionist.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Williams heard a good deal of Caribbean music, and one of his best friends in high school was a trumpeter from Trinidad. Not surprisingly, he and Charles bonded quickly when they met as students at Juilliard six years ago, and they’ve become close confidants on and off the bandstand.
“Etienne has definitely set himself apart from everything else that’s happening,” Williams says. “His music is unique, and he’s found a very hip way to fuse everything together. The music is very rich and beautiful, but at the same time, we’re grooving and everybody’s having a good time. Everybody ends up dancing by the end of the gig.
“And believe me, in New York you don’t see that a lot. Actually, you hardly ever see that at all.”
The not-so secret ingredient in Charles’ music is a potent dose of down-home blues. In a particularly fascinating act of reclamation, on “Creole Soul” he turns the Dawn Penn rocksteady standard “You Don’t Love Me (No No No)” into a swaggering, bluesy swinger, tapping into the song’s Bo Diddley origins.
“I always try to have a blues (song) on my records,” Charles says. “That’s one of the foundations of the music. It’s like Wynton Marsalis talks about, in jazz you have to have that blues and swing, that syncopation.”
ETIENNE CHARLES QUINTET
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Blackbird Tavern, 200 S. First St., San Jose
Also: 7 p.m. Monday, Kuumbwa Jazz Center,
320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, $20-$23, 831-427-2227, http://kuumbwajazz.org;
8 p.m. Tuesday, Piedmont Piano Company, 1728 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, $15, 510-547-8188