Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles and his dance-happy Creole Soul set for San Diego debut


Wednesday’s Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI concert here by Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles and his dance-happy band, Creole Soul, will be precedent-setting for several reasons..

Daniel Atkinson, who launched the concert series in 1996 and has guided it ever since, will receive the 2018 Jazz Journalists Association’s prestigious Jazz Hero award from JJA member Robert Bush. To commemorate the event, a proclamation from the San Diego City Council declaring April 4 Daniel Atkinson Day will also be presented.

Headlining this festive occasion will be Charles and his multinational band. Not only will it mark the acclaimed group’s first San Diego performance, it may be the first time any audience at an Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI concert — or at least part of it — rises from their seats to dance, en masse.

“I’m hoping they will dance, because calypso is dance music and we always encourage people to dance when we play calypso,” said Charles, 34, who is a composer and band leader by night and an assistant professor of jazz studies at Michigan State University by day.

“Our concerts are an exchange of energy between the audience and musicians. I try to tell a story and take people on a journey, to show them things they might not know — a groove or style — and where it came from. I hardly ever talk on stage about the history of calypso, though, because it’s pretty familiar to most people.”

To reflect that journey, 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Charles named his record label Culture Shock Music.

Happily, there is nothing remotely shocking about his inviting blend of jazz, calypso, socca, reggae, bomba, soul, mascaron, Afro-Latin styles from across the Caribbean and music from the American South, in particular New Orleans.

As for the mostly wordless stories he tells, perhaps the most compelling examples are on his fifth and most recent album, 2016’s “San José Suite.”

Its title is a literal reflection of three countries and cultures, and the borders-leaping music that simultaneously makes them distinct and ties them together.

Charles researched the album by traveling to San José de Oruña in his native Trinidad, to San José in Costa Rica and to San Jose in Northern California.

What results is a welcome extension of the vibrant musical arc he skillfully traversed on his previous album, “Creole Soul.”

“I did a musical study of the effects of colonialism, using the former Spanish colonies in Trinidad, Costa Rica and the California Coast,” Charles explained last week from New York, where he was preparing to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

“In Trinidad and Costa Rica, I lived with indigenous people. Basically, I studied the African descendants in each place — and the first national people in each place.

“And for African descendants in San Jose, California, I decided to focus on student athletes who came to San Jose State in the 1960s — like John Carlos and Tommie Smith — who used their success as athletes to help desegregate the campus.”

Smith and Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

During the subsequent awards ceremony, they famously bowed their heads and thrust their clenched right fists into the air. It was a silent political statement felt around the world, including in Trinidad and Tobago, where Charles was born in 1983.

Smith and Carlos were both San Jose State students of sociology professor Dr. Harry Edwards, who in 1968 founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Charles wrote “Speed City,” a song on “San José Suite,” about Edwards, Smith and Carlos.

“Harry Edwards actually does a spoken-word segment on the album,” Charles proudly noted. “Sometimes, I play a little of the audio of Harry’s voice when we perform ‘Speed City’ in concert.”

Even so, anyone expecting the trumpeter to proselytize from the stage when he and his five-man Creole Soul band perform here Wednesday may be disappointed.

“My music is always inspired by things and I’m not stating my point of view,” said Charles, whose next album will be a big-band outing.

“All I do is tell the story. I say: ‘This happened and that’s a fact.’ It gives people perspective and another angle and way to understand the music. … We definitely try to give the audience something to chew on and I want to give them a good time.

“(Jazz drum legend) Art Blakey had a saying: ‘Music washes away the dirt of everyday life.’ I take that to heart.

“Our music takes you on a journey, without you having to go to the airport! If people come to our show, they’ll have a good time and they will feel the music.”

Etienne Charles & Creole Soul, featuring Danny Janklow, Tony Tixier, Samir Moulay, Dean Hullett and Jonathan Pinson

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI Auditorium, 10620 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla

Tickets: $30 (members), $35 (non-members)

Phone: (858) 454-5872


Twitter @georgevarga