With “Creole Soul,” Etienne Charles Explores Outside the Conventions of Jazz

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

For trumpeter Etienne Charles, whose dynamic, genre-bending new album Creole Soul arrives today, this project wasn’t about innovation. That’s too exterior. “It’s the music of who I am,” Charles tells Popdose, “and where I’m from.”

Born in Trinidad, Charles expands the idea of straight-ahead jazz with a spicy blending of island influences — including calypso, rock steady rhythms and Haitian chants. He even covers Bob Marley.

All of that, however, is not to say that Charles doesn’t have his jazz credentials in order. Schooled in Florida, trained in New York and now teaching at Michigan State University, Charles plays with a direct, impassioned virtuosity. But he’s not bound by the conventions that have often turned albums by post-modern players like Wynton Marsalis into museum pieces. In fact, for all of the furious invention surrounding Creole Soul, Charles connects what he’s doing — as fresh as it sounds — with age-old concepts put forward by the likes of adventurous forebears like Louis Armstrong.

“I won’t say that I specifically focus on innovation, or on trying to do something new,” Charles says. “What I’m doing has been done many, many times before. It’s just that people forget. When you talk about the beginnings of jazz, it’s always about bringing sounds to the table. Jazz is a big family, and we are always welcoming new cousins into the family — like America. America is a country that is always welcoming new immigrants in, and jazz is American music.”

Charles works with the roving eye of someone who grew up in the Caribbean’s boisterous African diaspora, taking it all in — and then making this updated construct his own. For the album-opening “Creole,” that’s the kongo groove from northern Haiti. For the raucous “Doin’ the Thing,” it’s a timeless calypso. Charles uncovers the island influences in choice covers like Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimney,” too.

“I take sounds that I connect with, because that’s what makes jazz what it is,” Charles says. “It’s about music that makes you feel. For me, being from the Caribbean — specifically from Trinidad — those rhythms speak to me. That’s what I connect with so strongly. I love swinging, and I love playing straight-ahead music. I’ve recorded those albums, but every now and then, I just want to push it a little bit, and see where I can go as a composer and as a improviser. With my band, we like to go find new sounds.”

So, while many modern jazz recordings get lost in a maze of cerebral experimentation, focusing on the head at the expense of the heart, Charles’ Creole Soul retains a personal feel, like a conversation between friends. In this space, the concepts of home, of community, of continuity are valued more than simple virtuosity. “The Folks,” for instance, celebrates Charles’ parents, while “Roots” pays homage to his family’s lengthy association with the French-speaking island of Martinique.

“This album definitely has a personal tint to it,” Charles says. “I’ve always been very big on family, and the last couple of years I have been trying to do some active discovery into where the family came from.”

If, along the way, Charles finds a reformulation that sounds utterly fresh — reggae bop? voodoo swing? — then that’s just a function of his quest to reflect the place where he’s from, with its fascinating history of cross-pollination. The Caribbean is, of course, a wide-open space, this string of island nations surrounded by an endless horizon. The same goes for Charles’ brilliant Creole Soul.

“I would say that it’s a picture of where I am now, in terms of not worrying about false boundaries that people have created about the music we play — this improvisational music that we play,” Charles says. “Over the years, boundaries have been created. A lot of times, they are created generationally. Every generation has their idea about what jazz is supposed to be — what jazz is, what jazz was. But jazz is a music that will always change; it’s dynamic. Life gets breathed into it by some new sound.”

The newest is Etienne Charles.