Etienne Charles – Creole Soul (2013)

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The Trinidad-born Etienne Charles plays with a knifing, jazz-focused intensity, but inside a layered, rhythmically complex atmosphere that makes Creole Soul anything but the same old straight-ahead fare.

Like the bubbling roux that provides a foundation for any good gumbo, Charles stirs in a broad spectrum of spicy moods and resonant textures — reggae and island cadences from his own native Caribbean, sure, but also tangy asides from the Spanish and French traditions and a pinch of R&B and blues. Taken together, they give Creole Soul a sense of genre-smashing freedom. The album ends up moving to a rhythm of its own devising, emerging as a joyous celebration of imagination without borders, and music without boundaries.

Charles sets the tone early with “Creole,” which opens with a Haitian chant before exploding in this tornadic swirl of rhythm and melody from a group that includes tenorist Jacques Schwartz-Bart and altoist Brian Hogans. Their excitable rhythm section includes drummer Obed Calvaire, bassist Ben Williams, a pair of percussionists and Kris Bowers on piano and Rhodes.

Not that there aren’t moments when Creole Soul (due July 23, 2013 from MRI) sounds just like, well, jazz. There’s “The Folks” which, with its long trumpet lines and trickling keyboard asides, is the very portrait of old-school fusion. “You Don’t Love Me,” meanwhile, is so sleek and groove-focused that it could have been swiped out of the Blue Note Records vaults. “Memories,” a down-shifted calypso, works as this lovingly conveyed, richly painted ballad tribute to the recently passed steel pan master Ralph MacDonald, a Charles mentor. Originals like “Midnight” (which boasts a West Coast coolness, even amid the active interplay between Calvaire and Bowers) and “Close Your Eyes” (a luminous duet between Charles and Bowers) are finely detailed narratives.

It’s never long, however, before Charles and Co. have begun stirring the pot again, with Daniel Sadownick and D’Achee adding a series of undulating percussive lines to “Roots” even as the trumpet and guitar engage in a dramatic conversation. They find bright new revelations in familiar favorites like Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimney,” where Charles seeks to uncover the urban catalyst for Monk’s music — his Caribbean-populated San Juan Hill neighborhood in New York City. Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low” then becomes a lilting moment of reminiscence. Finally, there’s the boisterous, fun-loving “Doin’ Your Thing,” which ends the album in a moment of rapturous delight.

Call it jazz, if you must. But the truth is Creole Soul — whose album-opening Haitian chant, it’s instructive to learn, translates into “I’m bringing news” — finds Etienne Charles working in colors that are as vibrant and exciting as anybody today — not just in jazz, but in all of music.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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