Dec. 16 2015 11:15 AM

'Creole Christmas' blends sentiment and style

Jazz cats love to bring out the claws. Toying with a mousey tune like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” — adding sudden accelerations, harmonic refractions and insider quotes — is an instinct they can’t fight.

Etienne Charles’ new CD, “Creole Christmas,” does mess with Santa, but briefly and gently. Casual jazz fans who prefer their music “straight” need not run for the hills. The young MSU jazz professor is an international trumpet star and he wants to teach you a thing or two, but he’s completely divorced from hipster condescension. There is a welcoming, human glow at the center of his new CD, no matter what direction it takes.

Charles deployed some 27 musicians — young and old, American and Trinidadian — to prepare a varied spread of calypso, R&B, gospel, straight-up jazz and other styles from Charles’ native island. A relentless bounce and lightness of touch make “Creole Christmas” go down so easy, despite its density and variety.

Much of the glow of the album comes after the song is over and the groove keeps going, like the aftertaste of a rum ball, overlaid with solo musings from trumpet, piano, horn or steel drum.

Deftly deployed contrasts, dusted with a common spirit, keep the CD fascinating from end to end. The R&B groove of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” is balanced by a gentle duet with MSU guitarist Randy Napoleon on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Napoleon’s banjo-ish chords on acoustic guitar tiptoe around the tree, hand in hand with Charles’ muted trumpet.

It’s a sweet spread, but not too sweet. Whenever Charles’ little boat drifts toward Christmas Candyland, he throws in a harmonic cross-current, a triple ripple of rhythm or a fresh instrumental flavor.

Maybe the key to the success of “Creole Christmas” is that the sentiment is built into the music and doesn’t have to be forced. The old-world lilt of “Juliana” and “Roses of Caracas Waltz,” by Venezuelan music pioneer Lionel Belasco, bring out colors that seldom glow from a Christmas CD but add another room to the party. (Venezuela is only eight miles away from Trinidad at its closest.) Charles grew up hearing these tunes, especially at Christmastime.

“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” takes off from Duke Ellington’s famous version, thickening the mystery and creasing the rhythms like origami, making you aware of music deep in the folds that you’d never noticed. (How does Charles do that?) At nearly eight minutes, this track goes deep and wide, with exploratory solos by all, un til a dramatic return to the famous melody and a lovely coda by baritone saxophonist Tony Lustig.

Storytelling is a big part of Trinidadian music, and stories are woven into the mix — but not the ones you might expect. “Father Christmas,” a novelty tune by the Mighty Spoiler of calypso fame, is sung by presentday calypso great Relator. He sings about waking up Christmas morning to find a policeman “like Jack Palance” at his door, ready to haul him into jail for non-payment of alimony. “Tell Santa Claus,” with breathy vocalist David Rudder, tells a fable of a little boy who asks for a “trumpet or concertina” for Christmas. The heart-tugs are tempered by nimble, lively interventions, especially from Charles. Their voices make fragile magic together when Rudder sings, “I just want to play all day,” and Charles illustrates the lyric, as if it were a children’s book, with his horn’s golden washes.

There’s more to describe, but I haven’t got the space. Discovery is part of the fun of “Creole Christmas.” Suffice it to say that the variety of voices and recurring notes of humor, sentiment and anti-commercialism add up to a coherent, human message that never overshadows the music.

Perhaps that’s why the only certified, jazz-ified standard on the disc, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” doesn’t come off as hipster snark. The jazz tics and tricks are there, but the claws are retracted. You can feel the affection for the song’s familiar chord changes — and for the big guy himself. A wobbly, pot-bellied trombone solo by Wycliffe Gordon tips the scale decisively toward merriment.

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