Etienne Charles’ brass forged from steel
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org June 20, 2013 5:40PM
HYDE PARK JAZZ FESTIVAL BENEFIT CONCERT
WITH ETIENNE CHARLES & CO.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.
Tickets: $50 ($100, VIPs; $10 for students)
Info: (773) 324-6926;
Updated: June 20, 2013 5:51PM
The trumpet has been a vessel of adventure for Etienne Charles.
The native of Port of Spain, Trinidad, divides his time between Long Island and Lansing, Mich., where he is an assistant professor of jazz trumpet at Michigan State University. His new album “Creole Soul” (Culture Shock Music) is framed by Haitian creole rhythms while featuring the reggae of Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (no, no, no)” and the traditional calypso of Winsford Devine’s “Memories.”
Charles performs with his quintet Thursday in a Hyde Park Jazz Festival benefit concert at Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts.
He is only 29 years old.
Charles moved to the United States at age 19 to study jazz under piano player Marcus Roberts at Florida State University. Charles also holds a master’s from the Juilliard School.
From an early age, Charles played with steel drum crews in Port of Spain. “One of the steel bands in Woodbrook [neighborhood] was Phase II, which probably still is one of the most progressive experimental steel bands in Trinidad,” Charles said in a call from Long Island.
The sextet meshes contemporary instrumentation with traditional steel pan. Charles was absorbed by the forward motion of the sound.
“It is jazz-infusion influences,” he explained. “They took a lot of musical risks. Boogsie [Len Sharpe, arranger and founder] was a member of Monty Alexander’s group in the 1970. Monty is one of my mentors.”
Alexander is another story. He began his career as a reggae sideman with the Skatalites and Joe Higgs in his native Kingston, Jamaica, before becoming the house piano player in the early 1960s at the historic Jilly’s on 52nd Street in New York City. Jilly’s regular Frank Sinatra loved Alexander’s swinging mento (calypso-folk). Alexander had picked up jazz chops from late Skatalite trombonist Roland Alphanso, who was a fan of Lester Young.
So Charles’ jazz influences spin cycle through Alexander and Phase II.
“Then I like the seasonal music called parang which we play at Christmas in Trinidad,” Charles continued. “There’s cuatros and guitars and chac-chacs [maracas]. There’s a box bass, and they sing in Spanish,” he said. The parang was brought to the Island of Trinidad by Venezuelan farmers.
Charles’ mother Victoria was an urban planner. His father Francis was a land surveyor.
“He was one of the few people trained in land surveying and hydrography,” Charles said. “He now represents Trinidad on the United Nations Commission on the Law of the Sea and Continental Shelf. My mother got a call from the ambassador to Nigeria. So they moved to Nigeria from 2007 to 2010.”
She became Trinidadan High Commissioner to Nigeria, where the embryonic trumpet player would visit the Slave Coast of Nigeria and in Ghana.
Francis Charles played in a steel band when Charles was young and was a DJ before he was born. By the age of 10 Charles was hearing Bob Marley around the house; he covers Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low” with a slow New Orleans funk twist on “Creole Soul.”
When Charles was 5, his sister bought home a recorder from school. He learned to play the recorder. “Not long after that I started noodlin’ on steel pan because my dad had one at home,” he said. “My uncle gave me a trumpet when I was 10. He was in Toronto and he used to play the saxophone.”
The new track “Memories” is informed by Charles’ rich roots.
The song was inspired by the 2011 passing of steel pan percussionist Ralph MacDonald, a sideman to Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Buffett and John Lennon.
“I met Ralph on Carnival Tuesday [in Port of Spain] in 1998,” Charles said. “I was playing on-the-road [in street parades] on Carnival Monday. I used to be one of those kids playing on-the-road. I moved around in different bands. Somebody might get tired so you’d pick up iron sticks and play the iron, or play the congas. I ended up on the congas. This gentleman climbs up on the truck and starts playing the congas. It was Ralph MacDonald [whose father was from Trinidad]. We just rubbed shoulders. Fast forward to November 2005, and I was playing my first gig with Roberta Flack’s band.”
The Flack tour stopped in Stamford, Conn., where MacDonald lived with his family. MacDonald came to the sound check. Charles and MacDonald talked about Carnival 1998. They reunited when they were seatmates on a 2006 flight to the Barbados Jazz Festival. The relationship was solidified.
“I learned so much from him,” Charles said. “Understanding how to establish a groove. How to connect with a melodic level on the song. Keeping your improvisation and phrases clear. I learned how to handle time in the studio. Maintaining a connection to your roots and your music is the same thing I learned from Marcus Roberts. He is on all my records except for this one.”
MacDonald was a regular member of the touring band for Buffett, who is town at the same time as Charles. MacDonald was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and suffered a stroke in March 2011.
Charles visited MacDonald on a regular basis,
“It came to the point where he couldn’t feed himself,” he said. “So we would feed him ice cream flat in bed. It was humbling. That’s where ‘Memories’ came from. Every July 4, Ralph would have this huge barbecue at his house. He was a family man, and all the musicians he played with for years would come to the house. Will Lee [bassist on Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra]. Buddy Williams [jazz drummer]. The session guys like Bones Malone, Hugh McCracken, who just died.
“Ralph couldn’t do his last July 4. But everybody still came over to spend time with him. In September I went to visit him, and the next weekend I had a gig in Ann Arbor. I had a half hour at the piano before the show and that [deliberate intro] arrangement came over me. It was a popular song [Trinidadians] use when people pass away. It’s an old [Mighty] Sparrow calypso hit.”
Charles has been teaching at Michigan State since 2009. He also conducts a jazz orchestra there.
“I just finished four years of running a jazz outreach program in Detroit,” he said. “We had about 40 students from late elementary through high school. There was a concert each semester. I would take MSU students as my mentors. It was a weekly program part of the Community Music School.”
And world music percolates in the spirit of community, from pan yards to Chicago’s Hyde Park.