These are some of the things local band leader Charlton Singleton says about Etienne Charles, a fellow trumpet player who will bring his music, Caribbean swing and leadership to town Sept. 22 for the Charleston Jazz Orchestra’s Latin Night:
“He is smooth. He has a total command of the instrument. He is a brilliant arranger. He crafts his songs really well. He does lots of research.”
Charles, who is from Trinidad, grew up in a family of master percussionists and knows how to beat the drum pretty well himself. His music explores the folklore and culture of the African-Caribbean-American nexus.
An accomplished recording artist and stage performer at 29, he studied music at Florida State and Juilliard. He will lead the big band’s two sets with bandmaster Singleton sitting in the trumpet section.
It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between cultural and musical traditions within the big triangle that connects the Americas, the Caribbean and Africa. Latin beats have their origins among the tribes of the sub-Sahara. So does Gullah stick beating, or tamboo bamboo.
Listen to jazz and you sometimes will detect African call-and-response and American blues, too. These are all sounds Charles likes to incorporate, said Leah Suarez, executive director of Jazz Artists of Charleston, which produces the big band concerts.
But don’t call Charles’ music “crossover.” It’s more like a jazz creole, a mix of styles that melds beautifully into a cohesive whole, capturing the musical essence of the African diaspora. The sound is at once familiar and original; a stew, sometimes delicate, sometimes meaty, whose flavors dazzle and warm the soul.
The big piece he will present at the show was commissioned by Jazz Artists of Charleston and celebrates the Gullah-Caribbean connection, Charles said. He hadn’t yet named it as of last month.
“Charleston is a part of the Caribbean, no question about that,” Charles said, staking a claim to Lowcountry culture. It might be a bit north of Caribbean geography, “but culturally and socially it fits right in.”
The kernel for the new piece he’s writing for the big band planted itself in Charles’ brain this past spring when he was returning to New York City from a visit to Charleston.
“As I was leaving town, the bass line came to me and it stuck,” he said. He sang it over and over as he drove.
The tune will link blues style and Gullah beats with a Latin-Caribbean swing added in for good measure, he said. And all of it — the tamboo bamboo, the bent wail, the calypso and reggae sounds, the complex rhythms — can be traced to West Africa.
“If you go back far enough, you see that the first black music in Charleston has Caribbean origins,” Charles said. The slave trade brought many African laborers to Charleston via Barbados and the West Indies, a route that strongly informed Gullah-Geechee culture.
The big band format is relatively new to Charles, he said. “I did a concert for the Chicago Jazz Ensemble last October; that was my first foray into the world of big band compositions.”
In addition to the original piece he’s bringing to Charleston, Charles is expanding existing tunes, largely from two CDs: “Kaiso” and “Folklore.”
Though his instruments are trumpet and percussion, and most of his songs are instrumental, the voice plays a major role, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit. A few tunes benefit from Caribbean-accented vocals. But even when the final product doesn’t include singing, the voice is where it all begins.
“I write off grooves,” Charles said. “I start off with a chant or chorale.”
He sketches his ideas using the piano, then listens to the musical fragments in the car “to see if anything sticks,” synthesizing them in his head, then writing them down with intent.
When he brings his compositions to rehearsal, his bandmates inevitably change things around, he said.
This time, the CJO’s two-set Latin Night is more than a performance. Jazz Artists of Charleston and the Charleston County School District are working together to bus students to the Music Hall the day before the show so they can be exposed to big band music and meet Charles.
A panel discussion and meet-and-greet also are in the works.
It’s all part of an effort to educate audiences about jazz and its Charleston roots, and to establish JAC as a long-term presenting and promotion organization, Suarez said.
JAC “has to last past the current people,” she said. It must learn how to maximize its impact and reach new audiences.
“We have to keep the heartbeat, never lose the ‘why.’ It’s about keeping the artistic mission and vision at the core of everything we do.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparker writer.