A lavish photo spread in the December 2015 edition of Vanity Fair, “Jazz on the Loose,” gave some love to 36 virtuosos under 33 who are headlining “the hottest live jazz scene since World War I,” a fresh era of anything-goes, multi-cultural, polystylistic energy.
A piece of that colorful new scene came to Lansing’s REO Town district Thursday. How about Tchaikovsky’s “Spanish Dance” from “The Nutcracker” tossed into the simmering pot of a Venezuelan joropo rhythm, with swinging jazz solos on flute, trumpet and electric piano poured on top?
It’s no wonder that the chef behind this musical mélange, MSU’s Trinidad-born professor of jazz, Etienne Charles, sits right in the middle of the Vanity Fair spread — seated at a booth at New York’s Havana Central restaurant, trumpet at rest in his right hand.
The sold-out concert at the six-month old Robin Theatre was packed with music from Charles’ new CD, “Creole Chrismas.” The album is a blend of jazz, R&B, calypso, old folk rhythms and a couple of Christmas chestnuts, all stirred together into a buoyant, joyous celebration.
In the Vanity Fair photo, Charles is looking at the camera with an impatient expression, like a Mafia don whose breakfast has just been interrupted.
At the Robin, he was a lot nicer. When the concert was over, the man in blue velour road-blocked the door and forced everyone to submit to further charm as he thanked them for coming.
The Lansing date was one of only three chances to catch “Creole Christmas” live in 2015. The first was Nov. 29 at Queen’s Hall in Trinidad; the second was Dec. 2 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York’s Lincoln Center.
Dylan Rogers and Jeana-Dee Allen, busy proprietors of the Robin Theatre, had little time to savor a coming-of-age night for their fledgling venue. The duo had just hours to turn the theater over for a series of weekend holiday concerts by Rogers’ Lansing Unionized Vaudeville Spectacle. But they were clearly pleased.
“Etienne is a superstar,” Rogers said. “He’s been a wonderful gentleman to work with.”
Charles spotted the Robin Theatre while eating lunch next door.
“It’s a great venue, the sound is really cool,” he said. “It’s designed for theater, which means it’s designed for jazz musicians to play acoustically.”
Charles’ CD features an international roster of 27 musicians, but the music begs to be heard live.
“It’s totally different when you hear it in person,” Charles said. “I wanted to give the scope of what I know and feel about Christmas, growing up in Trinidad. Being from a musical family, Christmas was about playing music on the porch.”
Legends who appear on the CD, such as calypso great Relator, were not on hand Thursday. But the stage was overloaded with present and former students of MSU’s Jazz Studies program, forged in short order into a strong, supple unit.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been the oldest person on the bandstand,” Charles, 32, told the audience.
The band personified the multi-cultural mix touted by critic Will Friedwald in Vanity Fair. A phalanx of four horns, counting Charles, cranked the power knob as high — or higher — than the recording. MSU student Seth Ebersole juggled tenor sax, flute and baritone sax, flanked by Markus Howell of Florida on alto sax and Kirby Fellis, also from Trinidad, on trombone.
Guitarist Olin Clark of Grand Rapids enriched the texture all night, joining Charles for a gentle duet on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” The rhythm section, barely visible behind the mob on stage, hung in through the music’s many changes like shifting bedrock: French-born Kim Vi on piano (and a holiday-bell-like Fender-Rhodes), Aneesa Al Mussawir of Oakland, Calif., on bass and Jud Branham IV of Ann Arbor on drums. On several tunes, Charles commandeered a pair of conga drums and brought the music to a rolling boil.
As if that weren’t enough, Charles brought singer Antwaun Stanley of Flint to the stage for two electrifying tunes, starting with the gospel classic “Go Tell it On the Mountain.” No less than Jon Batiste, bandleader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” recommended Stanley to Charles after Stanley sang on the Nov. 20 “Late Show” with Ann Arbor funk group Vulfpeck.
Stanley’s precision, energy and force were more than a match for Charles’ clarion trumpet and the young band’s tireless enthusiasm. Later in the night, Charles brought Stanley back for a bouncing, house-party romp through Donny Hathaway’s R&B classic, “This Christmas,” to close the show. All hands locked into the groove, bouncing and swaying like commuters on the A Train, while Stanley reared back and summoned up two rounds of call and response from a thoroughly wowed and lucky audience.
Etienne Charles will be the sole guest on “City Pulse on the Air” at 10:30 a.m. Saturday on 89FM the Impact. Download or stream the podcast at lansingcitypulse.com.