The lore of Trinidad is full of strange characters: child demons who roam the earth with their feet turned backwards; a woman with a cow’s foot hidden under a white dress; Papa Bois, the old man who protects the forest.
According to legend, Papa Bois used a horn to make his point. So does Etienne Charles.
If all those Trinidadian myths piled into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. with 1960s Blue Note artists like Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard, the result would be close to trumpeter Etienne Charles’ Folklore project.
Born and raised in Trinidad, trained at Berklee and Juilliard, Charles has finished his first year teaching at MSU.
The first jazz record Charles ever heard was “Stir it Up,” a live concert by Jamaicanborn pianist Monty Alexander concert.
That’s a telling detail. When Alexander played a Bob Marley tune, he dovetailed jazz into reggae with stunning completeness, doing justice to both and cheapening neither tradition.
“From the get-go, the sound of jazz for me was that,” Charles said. “For me, it was never about bringing the two together,” he said. “It was just what I heard.”
The melodies in Folklore skew toward the angular, searching lines of classic Blue Note jazz. Two of Charles’ favorite composers are Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk.
But this is Blue Note with bare feet.
“The rhythmic side — that’s the sound that I heard growing up,” he said. “That’s what I was playing in steel bands. The basses were always bouncy, there always was driving rhythm.”
Since the Folklore CD appeared in 2008, Charles said the band members have connected more deeply with the stories that inspired the music.
“They put that into their playing, as opposed to just going with the music and not knowing what it’s about,” he said. “That has really helped to push the music forward from when we recorded it.”
Some of the tunes use an image as a point of departure, while others follow a tale more closely.
Two of the Folklore pieces follow the fantastic story of La Diablesse, the woman with the hoof.
“Those pieces tell a story I was told as a child,” Charles said.
Another character, Mama D’lo, is a woman and a snake at the same time, and her tune is appropriately bifurcated. “It goes between looking at the top of her and looking at the bottom of her,” Charles said.
If there’s one character Charles identifies with, it’s Papa Bois, the serene protector of the woods. “He’s known to have a bullhorn,” Charles said. “That image of him goin’ up and blowing on the horn is what I imagined when I wrote it.”
Charles sees these ancient stories retold in the news every day.