Jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles was raised in a musical household in Trinidad where calypso, soca, folk and steelpan music thrives alongside a fusion of European, Indian and Afro-Creole rhythms and cultures. His father was a DJ, his uncles were musicians, and his mother always wanted music playing in their home.
Charles, who was given his first horn at 10, switched to percussion for a few teen years while a set of braces rearranged his smile and then returned to trumpet. Now, at age 33, he is a U.S. educator who never tires of deepening his own musical education. And his expertise as a trumpeter, percussionist, composer, improviser and musicologist will be on full display Wednesday-Saturday, April 26-29, as he and his five-piece band convene for a four-evening residency at the Mondavi Center for the Arts.
Charles experienced his latest musical epiphany just days before a recent phone interview. “I was in Tokyo with the Miles Davis Electric Band,” said Charles between classes as associate professor in the Jazz Studies program at Michigan State University. “It was pretty crazy because I played Miles’ parts, and there’s a bunch of musicians that were in Miles’ band, like Daryl Jones, who plays with the Rolling Stones now. … Let’s just say that the epiphany was in Miles’ ability to create a sense of freedom for the musicians while maintaining bebop traditions and structure. And he was really able to expound on the language of the music.”
Charles, who visited the States several times before moving here in 2002, holds a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and a master’s degree from The Juilliard School. He’s an adamant proponent of live music. And he embraces Davis’ sense of freedom as a sort of kinship between musicians and audiences as he mixes his Caribbean roots with swing, groove, funk, blues, reggae, bebop and beyond. He has a six-album discography.
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“(Jazz) takes you on a journey,” said Charles. “If the audience is exploring, and the musicians are exploring, it’s like we are all in unknown territory. There are no words. Just sounds that reflect emotions. So in a sense, that’s like a metaphysical thing. And that’s what creates the journey because it’s like you are already out of your regular head space.
“What keeps the music alive,” he said, “is the exchange between audience and musicians to create that sacred space. … That space of knowledge and doubt and nostalgia and futurism and all of that, all of that comes in the live (performance). That’s where the real magic is.”
This is Charles’ first appearance in the Sacramento area. His performance with guitarist Alex Wentz, saxophonist Godwin Louis, drummer John Grady Davis, pianist Brett Williams and bassist Jonathan Michel will include selections from Creole Soul (2013), Folklore (2009) and San Jose Suite (2016).
To develop the San Jose Suite, Charles traveled to San Jose, Calif.; San Jose, Costa Rica; and San Jose, Trinidad. He met with people and gathered information to figure out how to connect the areas based on their common experiences as former Spanish colonies in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and what made things happen, and to express it musically.
Charles has posted some exhilarating video teasers of his next project, “Carnival: The Sound of a People,” on his home page. Thus he continues his conversation between musician and society. “What we call jazz was a way to make people feel something and want to do something. Wherever the music goes, we always have to engage the public. Always. Jazz musicians want to play for people – not just for each other.”