Voodoo, voo-voo: Charles stirs jazz into Afro-Caribbean grooves
Etienne Charles is in serious danger of being institutionalized.
On June 5, U.S. Rep. Howard Berman of California recognized the Trinidad-born trumpeter and Michigan State University professor for his “musical contributions to nationals of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and the world,” as part of a resolution marking Caribbean American Heritage Month.
As if the Congressional Record wasn’t enough, Charles was singled out by another institution: The New York Times, in a May 31 review of pianist Eric Reed’s gig at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Times critic Nate Chinen spotlighted Charles’ “terse and soulful” solo on Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning.”
On the world stage, Charles trades licks with singer and Voodoo priest Ewol Josu in Jazz-Racine Haiti, a Caribbean quintet that fuses Haitian voodoo rhythms and jazz improvisation. The group performed June 26 before 80,000 at the wild Festival of Gnawa in Essaouria, Morocco. The English-language Abu Dhabi newspaper The National called it “this year’s defining festival moment.”
What’s next? Knighthood?
“What I’m doing is nothing new,” Charles said. “But it’s a fun journey.”
Charles, 29, will fight institutional rigor mortis by bringing his unique fusion of jazz and Afro-Caribbean roots rhythms to Old Town JazzFest’s as Saturday’s headliner.
He will be joined by fellow MSU prof Diego Rivera on tenor sax, Reggie Thompson on piano, drummer Mike Piolet from Miami, and bassist Daniel Chmielinski, whom Charles met two weeks ago at a Juilliard jazz camp.
“We will swing on the 4th in Lansing, because that’s one of the biggest parts of the jazz tradition,” Charles said. “But another big part, along with swinging and blues, is people enjoying us groove.”
When Charles brings straight-ahead jazz to a family reunion with its ancestral rhythms, including calypso, he also happens to make the perfect music for a hot summer night.
“I did a gig in Tobago in April, Jazz on the Beach,” he said They had this area in front with no seats. It was like a jazz mosh pit. People were just bubbling.”
Other musicians conveniently “discover” folk rhythms and “ethnic” music when their own well has run dry. Charles went the other way around.
“For me, music is always about dancing. I grew up around music with dance, and I kind of got away from it.”
Jazz took over his life for a while during studies at Berklee and Florida State. Charles’s bebop and post-bop education accelerated when he came to MSU to join jazz studies chief Rodney Whitaker.
“I started playing tempos I never played before,” he said. “I’ll never forget the time Rodney counted off ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ on a gig. One, two, a-one-two-onetwoDUDUdududududuu! I was like, ‘Holy shit — time to adapt.’”
A lot of jazz these days falls in two categories: “yawn” and “desperate.” Saturday night, Charles will play music from “Kaiso,” the latest in a string of CDs that have been praised for their unforced freshness.
“A lot of the musicians don’t connect with the fact that this is primarily a folk dance music at the core. Playing these folk rhythms, and sticking to them, for me, has rekindled that fire.”
His own heritage, he feels, made his musical path almost inevitable. “That’s kind of what I have to do, in a sense,” he said. “Luckily, I enjoy it.”
Despite his multicultural milieu, you won’t get complaints about provincial Midwest culture from Charles. He’s finding fruitful musical connections without leaving Michigan. For his next project, Charles is thinking about a “Dearborn-Detroit” CD exploring the links between Middle Eastern music and Motown.
For all his travels, Charles is looking forward to the peculiar charms of Old Town Jazz Fest, from the gargoyles on the buildings to hash at the Golden Harvest Restaurant.
“There’s not many towns like that around the country,” he said. “Old Town gives me a taste of somewhere like Charleston, Savannah, a certain part of New Orleans. It gives me that natural feel.”
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4
Jackson National Stage
John Douglas: Honoring his contract
When the terrible twos are over, Jonathan Douglas has a treat waiting for him.
His father, Detroit jazz trumpeter John Douglas, can’t wait to pass on the spirit of legends like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown.
“I got him a really nice trumpet, man, a custom Martin Committee,” Douglas said. (All the above-named greats played the famous brand.)
Only not just yet. “Right now he has a little plastic trumpet he carries around. He gets mad, he’ll chuck it.”
But Douglas, 42, is thinking of breaking in his son’s new Martin this weekend at Lansing JazzFest. “Put some vibrations in it, change the molecules of the metal, vibrate the frequencies,” he said, laughing. “So when I hand it to him, it’s already played.”
Douglas vibrates along the axis of classic bebop and post-bop standards, but he’s also a prolific composer. Friday night, he’ll play originals such as “Love Deferred,” a soulful ballad he premiered at his first Lansing JazzFest appearance, in 2009. He dryly predicted that another original, “J.D.’s Pursuit,” will “honor his contract” (read: burn up the street.)
The gift to his son is Douglas’ way of paying it forward. When Douglas was a kid, his parents put an assortment of instruments under the Christmas tree and told each of their eight kids to pick something. Douglas went for the trumpet like a shot.
As a kid, Douglas got records from the downtown Detroit library, played them on his dad’s turntable, and taped them on cassette. He decided to be a jazz trumpeter after being blown away by the Count Basie orchestra at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp.
Douglas was into rap and funk as a teenager. When Detroit piano legend Teddy Harris, Jr. suggested he listen to Miles Davis, he bought one of Davis’s later albums, the smooth-ish, commercial “Tutu.” That’s a bit like getting into Frank Sinatra by starting with his disco period, but Douglas loved it.
“This is the most awesome music I’ve ever heard,” Douglas told Harris. “You’re right. Miles Davis is great.”
Harris gently steered Douglas to “Kind of Blue,” “Birth of the Cool” and the rest of Davis’s career.
But Douglas finds it significant that electric-funky “Tutu” got him excited.
“Even though I don’t play much smooth jazz — or any at all — I respect it,” he said “That’s the music that’s getting through to people. So when they come to you, you almost have to have a bridge. ‘Tutu’ was a nice bridge to get them to come over to the history.”
His only beef with smooth jazz is its “not connected with its roots.”
“If you buy your wife some flowers and put them in a vase — that’s smooth jazz,” he said. “It’s pretty on a birthday or whatever, but it doesn’t have the roots, so it doesn’t last in your mind.”
Douglas has packed his working band with musicians who work well with a trumpet, starting with young bassist Ibrahim Jones.
“He’s very percussive, lays down the one,” Douglas said. “I listen from the bottom up, and I can always hear him.” Drummer taJuan “Butter” Hawkins comes from a drum and bugle background. “He’s one of the only jazz drummers I know that has a double bass drum and actually uses it,” Douglas said.
On guitar, Kris Kurzawa does more than add tone color and harmony. “He’s a fine composer-arranger,” Douglas said. “He brings a certain sensitivity to the music. He’ll stop playing and take a breath when he plays a solo, like a horn player. Not all guitar players do that.”
Douglas met his piano man, Michael Malis, when Malis was a freshman at the University of Michigan.
Over the years, Douglas has played thousands of dates, from his own influential group Jazzhead to garden variety agency calls to gigs with Gladys Knight and the Detroit Symphony. He classified the Old Town JazzFest as an “A1” experience.
“They treat the musicians very well, from quality of sound to stage crew to the food,” he said. “I wish every festival was like that.”
For now, his ongoing investigations of jazz’s beginnings in West African and Caribbean rhythms such as calypso have brought him from the roots and herbs. His own heritage, he feels, made his path almost inevitable.
“That’s kind of what I have to do, in a sense,” he said. “Luckily, I enjoy it.”
John Douglas Quintet
9-10:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3