Etienne Charles, trumpet great and music professor at Michigan State, has a sabbatical this year and this has him going non-stop literally all over the globe. The praise he gets as he travels the world keeps coming. In March, the New York Times called him a jazz “composer to be reckoned with” and more recently the jazz magazine Downbeat said he “delivers his ebullient improvisations with the elegance of a world class ballet dancer.”
After gigs in Europe this summer, he took his Brass Mas for the first time to Caribana in Toronto in early August, then he was down in the Caribbean for the Biguine Jazz Festival in Martinique and Carifesta XIV in T&T. At Carifesta, he was featured on the Jazzed Off evening, he and his band conducted master classes as part of the symposium at UWI and showed films he and Maria Nunes created as part of his Carnival album research at the Film Festival. Then he was off to London for Notting Hill Carnival and on to Ghana as he is touring Europe doing several weeks research in Africa for his next album. But in the midst of that, he flew back to New York City for a weekend of concerts.
His latest New York gigs were with his own 18-piece big band. They performed at Dizzy’s the nightclub at Jazz at Lincoln Center for four sold-out shows on September 7 and 8. In fact, the Sunday shows were also live streamed to thousands of viewers.
Big band, BIG sound
The Etienne Charles big band went through a set of both well-known jazz pieces, a little known Henry Mancini and some of his own compositions Charles’ own Doeuns from his Folklore album went over very well with solos by fine Chicago vibes virtuoso Joel Ross. The first set ended with a fun version of Sparrow’s Ten to One is Murder with the band and audience exuberantly singing the chorus. His approach is to feature various members in extended solos that got the crowd excited.
There has been an evolution over the past decade of big band for Etienne Charles. Going to college jazz studies programmes in the US almost always means being part of a big band. And so it was for Charles who was part of big bands at both Florida State and Julliard and he took classes in arranging for big band.
Ever since he started teaching at Michigan State a decade ago he has directed one of the big bands in the jazz programme and he also has been teaching jazz arranging. Initially he was working from charts from the university’s collection but as time went on he started writing arrangements of both his compositions and other jazz pieces.
Etienne credits Dana Hall who was then leading the Chicago Jazz Ensemble who really upped his involvement with writing big band charts. Hall commissioned Etienne to do several charts for a concert Etienne performed with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in 2011. Then he got a commission to do all the charts for a full big band concert in 2012 with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra in South Carolina.
These opportunities further spurred Etienne’s interest in big band arranging. He started to closely examine the arrangements for Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and others as he worked to create his own style of arranging. Now when he leads the Michigan State student big band he works primarily with arrangements he has written.
Recently, he has experimented with doing something that has never been done with a jazz big band, taking a technique used for Panorama. He calls out notes and the big band has to learn one new composition each concert by rote with no written music!
Meanwhile he has evolved a working big band of leading musicians that he convenes in New York City for concerts. He has featured them at concerts at the Jazz Standard in the last few years before these nights at Dizzy’s and in 2020, he will issue his first big band album.
Busy as a bee
Charles’ relationship with Jazz at Lincoln Center has been long standing. He first appeared as a student there in 2005 with the Florida State Jazz Band and later with the Julliard Jazz Ensemble. Since 2007, he has repeatedly appeared with his own band first as part of their Late Night gigs, then the Monday Night Upstarts series, and now prominently featured on their concert schedule.
Indeed, this year, a photo of Etienne Charles is used on print advertisements for Jazz at Lincoln Center season where he has been a regular. He premiered a Lincoln Center commission in a sold out January 2019 concert at the David Rubenstein Atrium with his six-piece touring band. He will return for a second presentation at Dizzy’s of his Creole Christmas concert on December 17 this year. Then, on June 5 and 6, 2020, Etienne Charles will offer the New York premiere of his Carnival: The Sound of a People in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s spectacular Appel Room with its magnificent view of Central Park.
The rest of the year Etienne Charles will continue to be on the road, for this period largely around the United States going from California to Colorado, Florida to Boston, Michigan to Washington, DC. He will perform both with his own group and as part of the SF Jazz Collective.
He returns to Trinidad for a concert at the National Academy for the Performing Arts (Napa), Port-of-Spain, on Thursday, December 5, and is already working on his Trinidad Carnival Monday band for 2020.