Something Else! Interview: Trumpeter Etienne Charles

Etienne Charles’ spicy new album Creole Soul is a perfectly named blend of jazz-inflected island music — from calypso to reggae, from rock steady to Haitian chants.

In this exclusive SER Sitdown, the Trinidad-born trumpeter discusses the origins of this remarkable amalgam — one that broadly expands the language of so-called straight-ahead improvisational music — within his own life’s story.

Charles also talks about the role that personal heroes from Louis Armstrong to Ralph McDonald to Thelonious Monk played, and how his music joins a torrent of influences from the African diaspora that moved into American culture through the gateway of New Orleans …

NICK DERISO: The thing that I sort of relearned all over again when listening to Creole Soul was this common thread between calypso and the gospel tradition in the South.
ETIENNE CHARLES: It’s good that you caught that. The diaspora is the diaspora — that’s why it’s called that: It’s all connected. You go to up the Caribbean to New Orleans, then you go around the South, and you find the same call and response ethic. It’s the same feeling-based ethic, the same manifestation ethic. It’s about display, getting out of your body. Go to Haiti, and it’s the voodoo tradition. Go to Trinidad, you have the shango tradition. In Louisiana, you have the Baptists. You go to Brazil, you have candomble. In Puerto Rico, you have the rhythms of the bomba, which they specifically play after church on a Sunday. It’s a connection that’s hundreds and hundreds of years old.

NICK DERISO: So there’s something larger at play.
ETIENNE CHARLES: To me, jazz is creole music. You’ve got the African influence, the Mexican influence, the Cuban/Haitian influences that were all over New Orleans. A lot of people forget that blacks were free in the Caribbean when this was going on in New Orleans. So, they were traveling up and down, from Central America. When you get to the turn of the century, you get more of a European influence. Then you get people like John Coltrane, who was specifically studying the classical composers — to bring himself closer to that second influence. To me, though, it was always creole.

NICK DERISO: I loved the way you drew out those Caribbean influences in Monk’s “Green Chimney.”
ETIENNE CHARLES: Believe it or not, there were people whose music always stood out for me as having been Caribbean influenced. And they really connected with me. Those people were David Sanchez — and his (2000) record Melaza, which was really life changing for me; Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, and the Sonny Rollins-Clifford Brown Quintet with Max Roach. I listened to a lot of Monk, a lot of Monk. And then (the Jamaican-born) Monty Alexander was at my house, and he was playing piano, and he was explaining it to me how his audiences love Monk, because it sounds like calypso. And then, funny enough, the Robin Kelley book (Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original) came out — and it talks about Monk growing up in San Juan Hill, which was a Caribbean neighborhood. All of his childhood friends were West Indians. “Bemsha Swing,” for instance, is about Barbados. A lot of people don’t know that Rubie Richardson (Monk’s first love, and the subject of “Ruby, My Dear”) was a West Indian. Robin Kelley hipped me to a lot of stuff with that book; it answers a lot of my questions about Monk. I was already close to his music, but it drew a circle.

NICK DERISO: Ralph McDonald had a huge impact on you, too, something you directly reference elsewhere on the new album. Tell me what the pan has meant to you, as a musician.
ETIENNE CHARLES: I grew up up playing pan, playing in steel bands, and the instrument is very special to anyone from the Caribbean — and specifically from Trinidad. Playing the pan was definitely helpful for me in my musical and creative development, because it taught me how to memorize music. We’d play 10 or 15 minutes of music, from memory, 120 people — and not a sheet of music in sight. (Laughs.) It taught you how to play in rhythm, and mark the time while you play. If a band is not grooving, people won’t enjoy it. It taught me that, from an early age. It taught me the basics of arrangement, and the basics of harmony, and the basics of theme and development. You’re always trying to maintain a connection to the original theme throughout the tune. Those were all of the things you picked up from playing in steel pans.

NICK DERISO: A glorious lack of conservatism surrounds those early influences. So much of what’s happened in jazz, in particular from the 1980s forward, seemes to be about retrenchment — about settling into rule-bound sensibilities. The thing I’ve liked about your career was the way you fused in rock, hip hop, island influences. I appreciate that push back.
ETIENNE CHARLES: It’s one thing to try to identify something specifically. But when, by identifying that, you take away what made it what it is, you’re no longer identifying it. There are a lot of people, for instance, who have problems with electric instruments — like the electric bass. And people who have problems with guitars with effects, or effect panels. And people who have problems with loop stations. But they don’t have problems with a trumpet, or an acoustic guitar or a banjo. The world evolves.

NICK DERISO: Those are people who don’t appreciate how foreign Louis Armstrong sounded in his time, how out of this world that music was in its day.
ETIENNE CHARLES: That call that music “traditional jazz.” To me, that’s very modern. The fact that most trumpet players can not do what he did, 60-70 years ago — that means it’s still modern. Same with Charlie Parker. People say he was good, for what he was doing at the time. I don’t know. Can you do what he did then? I’m as much about knowing what came before as I am about trying to use it to make something new. The grooves that we have on Creole Soul are at least a hundred years old. Those grooves have been there. It’s how you put it together. Chicken is always going to be chicken. (Laughs.) I always relate things to food. (Laughs again.)

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.