Etienne Charles fourth and latest album bears the title “Creole Soul.” It’s an apt description of the trumpeter’s music, a singular blend of influences from his Afro-Caribbean background, everything from calypso to Haitian voodoo music, with jazz, reggae, R&B and more.
“I come from a fusion of rhythms, a fusion of cultures,” Charles has said. “That’s what this album is all about: focusing on soul music that is Creole at heart.” This approach has won Charles critical praise, a growing fan base and, just a few months back, a 2015 Guggenheim fellowship.
Charles was born in Trinidad to a family whose roots reach into French Caribbean, Spanish and African cultures as well as Venezuelan influences. The trumpeter relocated first to Florida and then New York as he furthered his studies at, respectively, Florida State University and Juilliard. He remains dedicated to education through a teaching position of his own at Michigan State.
Northern Californians have three opportunities to catch Charles live in the coming weeks. He performs Thursday night at Kuumbwa Jazz in Santa Cruz, Saturday at San Jose Jazz Summer Fest and September 19 at the Monterey Jazz Festival. San Jose Jazz commissioned Charles’ “San Jose Suite,” which he will perform in a world premiere. Here is the first of my two-part interview with Charles.
Question: The place to start is with the “San Jose Suite.” The presenters note that the work carries “influences from San Jose, CA; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Charles’ native St. Joseph, Trinidad.” What were your goals as you began composing this? What musical qualities do the three locations share?
Charles: The goals were to utilize the experiences of the indigenous peoples and African immigrants in each place to inspire and develop the musical ideas. The common themes of the piece are conquest, community and resistance. In terms of musical qualities, each location has its version of what we know as the blues. Each location uses strong rhythmic lilt in their ritual music. I’ve tried to capture that.
Question: What form did your initial exposure to jazz take? At what point did you realize it was the genre best suited to your creativity?
Charles: I was about 19 when I started pursuing jazz seriously. About two years later, I began composing. It was then that I realized that this idiom, in addition to having freedom of expression and telling the story of the Creole experience, can naturally incorporate many styles and not sound “jumbled.”