Riding high, flying home

By Lawrence Cosentino

Back at MSU, trumpeter Etienne Charles blasts into the Broad Museum

Etienne Charles is on a “Creole Soul” roll. The Trinidad-born trumpeter/composer/bandleader and youngest of the MSU Professors of Jazz hits Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum Thursday for a back-to-school bash that celebrates Charles’ hot new CD.

Charles, 30, returns to his post at MSU after tearing across the hemisphere with an evolving blend of cerebral jazz and island dance grooves that’s getting national attention.

The dean of The New York Times jazz critics, Ben Ratliff, gave Charles a lot of ink for a packed show at Manhattan´s Le Poisson Rouge July 24, praising Charles for stretching his musical appeal while keeping his music “intellectually sound.”

“He’s got it about as right as he can,” Ratliff wrote.

Last week, “Creole Soul” notched in its third week in a row at No. 1 on the Jazz- Week charts. Ratliff called the CD a “smart response” to the challenge of breaking out of the jazz box without losing respect among hard-core jazzheads.

But the disc is already a relic, according to Charles.

“The music has completely changed from what we recorded,” Charles said. “It goes all over the place now.”

This year, Charles and a group with MSU alumnus and bassist Ben Williams hit the Tobago Jazz Experience and the St. Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival and played a packed fundraiser for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago.

“Then it got crazy,” Charles said. He rattled off a succession of dates from Toronto to New York to Denver, Los Angeles and several California stops.

Despite his international reach, it’s rare for Charles to play his own music in Michigan, where he usually ends up as a sideman with his illustrious colleagues, bassist Rodney Whitaker and the MSU Professors of Jazz.

Charles is eager to get inside the angular new art museum and fill it with soul.

“It’s really extraordinary,” he said of the building. “Talk about architecture as art — you cannot NOT see it as you drive by.”

A contemporary art museum might seem a chilly space to groove to island jazz, but Charles doesn’t see it that way.

“I love to play in museums,” Charles said.

“My very first gig in New York as a leader was at the Museum of Modern Art.” Asked to write original music for MOMA’s Summergarden series, Charles visited the museum and soaked up the art ahead of the gig. He plans to do the same at the Broad, which he’s only seen from the outside.

“I’m going to see if there’s anything I can tap into,” he said. “Musicians react to the art around them, the same way they react to the people in a room, because art is just a reflection of people’s thoughts and emotions. So we’re naturally going to react to it.”

On an outdoor stage or inside a museum, Charles lets the music go where it will, according to the mood and the musicians on hand. “The Folks,” a tune dedicated to Charles’ parents, had a calypso groove on “Creole Soul.”

“Now when we play it live, every solo has a completely different thing behind it, and every night is different,” he said. “One night we went completely free jazz! I can’t say what it’s going to be the next night.”

Joining Charles at the Broad are fellow MSU professor Diego Rivera on saxophone; Randy Napoleon on guitar; Corey Kendrick, a professional jazz musician from Illinois who moved to Michigan last year for graduate studies at MSU, on piano; Joe Vasquez on bass; and Cuban-born percussionist Pepe Espinos.

“It’s fun to play for new audiences,” Charles said. “They come expecting to hear a jazz concert, and we give them something a little bit different.”

Etienne Charles Quintet: Creole Soul

7 p.m. Thursday Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum 547 E. Circle Drive, East Lansing $10/$7 students and members broadmuseum.msu.edu