Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience: Etienne Charles
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
Who: Etienne Charles
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience at the Aspen Art Museum
When: Sunday, June 23, 6:15 & 8:30 p.m.
More info: jazzaspensnowmass.org
Etienne Charles is bringing his upbeat, dance-friendly calypso band back to Aspen for this weekend’s Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience, returning after a memorable run at the JAS Café during the World Cup finals here two years ago.
The Trinidad-born trumpeter, 35, has established himself among the greatest living improvisers, playing a lively brand of jazz that mixes the rhythms of Afro-Caribbean folk music and calypso with New Orleans brass.
Coming from a long line of musicians, Charles first picked up the trumpet at age 10. By 13, he said, he knew he needed to devote his life to music. When he moved to the U.S. for college at Florida State University, he dug deep into the American jazz tradition. By the time he was in graduate school at Juilliard, Charles was making a name for himself as an improviser and composer, developing a style that recalled contemporary mainstream trumpeters like Wynton Marsalis but that also incorporated the rhythms and traditions of the Caribbean.
“I try to write in different ways so that it all doesn’t sound like it’s all coming from one side,” Charles said before the World Cup shows.
Charles approaches jazz with both intellectual rigor and a pop-music sensibility.
His “Creole Soul,” which topped the jazz charts in 2013, is a musical exploration of the Caribbean that’s steeped in its history. For 2016’s “San Jose Suite,” Charles took on an anthropological study of different San Joses — in Trinidad, Costa Rica and California — looking for common ground. He’s a musician that likes to ask big questions, and look for answers in jazz.
“With ‘San Jose Suite,’ it was an idea based on trying to figure out ways to connect different places in the new world and connect them based on their colonial experiences and the differences between them,” he said. “It was the first time I went out to meet and interview and record people to learn about their history, to then write music. It was a fascinating process.”
Shaping “Creole Soul” was a less academic pursuit, but still imbued with big ideas.
“With ‘Creole Soul,’ it was similar but it was a little wider because I was digging into Haitian voodoo and calypso and reggae and a little bit of New Orleans funk and Thelonious Monk,” Charles said.
But his two evening shows Sunday on the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum will be all about the calypso sound and dancing.
“We’ll start cooking with the dance material,” Charles said. “Any time you groove with the music, it’s fun — especially when you see people having a good time.”
With his intense interest in history and in jazz’s role to both reflect and shape culture, Charles is uniquely prepared to respond to the tumult and bitter division currently gripping the U.S. and other nations around the globe. He’s been traveling extensively in recent years to perform and has seen a global society aching for music to unite it.
“It’s a weird dynamic going on worldwide right now,” he said. “What I’m seeing is that people are turning to music to get more than the music right now. … You see all of the tense times in American history and you see that music has been the impetus to make change happen. So hopefully our job helps bring people together who have similar ideas, or people who have different ideas that might not converse but who the music brings together.”
Charles pointed to the story of Louis Armstrong’s 1960 tour of Africa, when warring tribes sat down together to watch his concerts in peace, as an example of his loftiest goals for jazz: “I always think about that when I play, because you don’t know who is there, you don’t know their story, you don’t know what their relation is to the person next to them or across the room. I’m always hoping to find solutions and connections.”