I swore, in memory of Ras Shorty I and Arrow, I'd never sit and listen to soca again in the kingdom of this world.But then I hadn't bargained on Etienne Charles' version of his favourite soca song-Sugar Bum Bum. Which just goes to prove how wrong I can be but more significantly what brilliance can emanate from a horn man who is as fastidious about his waistcoat as he is about harmony, phrasing, improvisation and honouring Trinidad's great kaiso legacy with sensitive, genre-stretching arrangements.
Still the right side of 30, Etienne, seems to be emulating the soaring trajectory of other trumpeting greats like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, both in his precocity and willingness to revisit the past for his present explorations.His concert at Queen's Hall on Saturday night, which closed this year's T&T Steelpan & Jazz Festival, produced by the QRC Foundation, was a full-house expectant affair.
Etienne and his sextet fulfilled and surpassed expectations with a musical journey which travelled the jazz migratory route from Africa and yes the Caribbean,to New Orleans, with detours to London, Grenada, Guadeloupe and specific locations in Trinidad, some of which like the infamous but fun fun fun Miramar Club, are only a twinkle in an old head's eye.
Although as Sean Thomas can confirm, a jazzman's life in Trinidad eh easy and the ballad is the same throughout the region; even stay-at-home greats like St Lucia's Luther Francois exist precariously between the hotel lobby and the occasional gig, usually an afterthought on the bill of a stale trip trap R&B funky dunk festival for dem from foreign.
The aspiring Caribbean jazzer after studies at Berklee or Julliard, usually disappears somewhere north of Miami, so it's to Etienne's credit that he's not turned his back, or his horn on T&T.Far from it. His three albums (Culture Shock, Folklore and most recently Kaiso) have all tapped heavily into our musical legacy, reworking it and in some instances opening up entire new musical vistas and visions, which beside the pleasure they evoke in the contemporary scene, keep the music, spirit and stories of icons like Roaring Lion, Mighty Sparrow and de Grandmaster himself, Lord Kitchener, vibrantly alive.
For the Queen's Hall show Etienne put together a sextet, which occasionally swelled to septet, featuring Caribbean and North American personnel.Matching Etienne's horn on sax was Guadeloupean Jacques Schwartz-Bart, looking every inch the fly Jewish Big Apple diamond merchant, in heavy frame glasses perched under black with discreet vertical white stripes bebop pork pie, and beige linen suit.
You know these French Antilleans are sharp, and Jacques doesn't only dress but plays the part too: his lyricism complementing Etienne, rarely selfishly outblowing him, even when the rhythms put fire in his blood.Sullivan Fortner on piano betrayed his New Orleans origins with a barrel-house inflection recalling Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Domino, while Terreon Gully on drums and Curtis Luques on bass showed affinity with the Caribbean rhythms the two sets demanded.
Brian Hogans on alto sax looked to be continually on the brink of talking off through the auditorium roof. Among the highlights of the first set was Kitch's "bebop of calypso," which allowed for an extended review of Kitch's musical vocabulary.While we know of Kitch's compositions with steelpan in mind, few know that he was an accomplished double bassist, with an ear for the latest musical developments.
Honouring his mentors, Etienne called Lord Superior up for a couple of numbers, hitting the heady humour of the tent with his "Michael Jackson"-"When Michael Jackson was black, every president was white but as soon as Michael Jackson turned white, the president turned black."The first set concluded with Sparrow's badjohn anthem Ten to One, with menacing bass chopping under Etienne's racing horn, a bloodcurdling alto sax solo and the audience roped in as call and response chorus.
In the second set Sugar Boom Boom romped away a clear winner with its understated trumpet melody proving less is sometimes more and posing the question-why aren't more T&T musicians exploring the treasures gathering dust like all those empty sky scrapers in town?The finale-Roaring Lion's Jouvay Barrio-confirmed Etienne is a Jouvert man (his outing on congas sealed his percussion creds).
Calling on 3 Canal to join the band, Etienne acknowledged other (reasonably) young J'Ouvert devotees, whose Blue marked a revival of the most vibrant part of Carnival.While the current steelband and jazz festival may not match the international star studded cast of its 80s and early 90s forerunner, we are both fortunate and proud to have Etienne Charles pay this flying visit, which will keep us bebopping Creole style till his return.