Trumpeter Etienne Charles headlines JAS Café for World Cup weekend in Aspen
If You Go …
Who: Etienne Charles
Where: JAS Café at the Aspen Cooking School
When: Friday, March 17, 10 p.m.; Saturday, March 18, 7 & 9:15 p.m.
How much: $35-$60
Etienne Charles is taking over the JAS Cafe at the Cooking School of Aspen for World Cup weekend. The Trinidad-born trumpeter is planning upbeat, dance-friendly shows with an eight-piece calypso band.
Charles, 33, has established himself among the greatest living improvisational trumpeters, playing a lively and 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 recently from East Lansing, Michigan, where he is a jazz trumpet professor at Michigan State University.
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 Caribbean that’s steeped in its history. For last year’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 but of New Orleans funk and Thelonious Monk,” Charles said.
At this weekend’s shows in Aspen, Charles said he may warm up the crowd with some songs from “Creole Soul” and “San Jose Suite” before kicking into high gear (Friday’s Carnival-themed late night show, in particular, promises to be a wild nightcap following the day’s ski races, festival and outdoor concerts). His calypso band will be complemented by vocals from Keith “Keet Styla” Prescott.
“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.”
Charles is coming to town with Caribbean Carnival celebrations on his mind. He recently completed a new piece, funded through a Guggenheim fellowship, that he’s been working on for five years. A massive undertaking running nearly three hours, it charts Carnival traditions through history. The new work recently premiered in Trinidad, and Charles hopes to release a recording of it by year’s end.
Teaching young musicians in Michigan, Charles said, has become key to his creative process. His students regularly turn him on to new music, he said, and playing with them often inspires fresh ideas. As he’s teaching improvisation to trumpeters, he accompanies them on piano.
“While I’m playing the piano, I might make a mistake and that mistake might become my next tune,” he said. “Or I might slow something down to demonstrate it to a student and through that I might discover something I haven’t heard before. All those things happen in the moment when you’re teaching music.”
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. 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.”
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