Etienne Charles’ Carnival: The Sound of
a People, Vol 1
in stores tomorrow, 3/22

Trinidad looms large on the latest album from trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles. It’s where he was born and when the Julliard-trained jazz musician went home for Carnival he ended up creating a wonderful homage to the musical history and Carnival traditions of the island.

Like other pre-Lenten festivals occurring throughout the African diaspora, the Carnival culture of Trinidad is much more than the steel drums, wild costumes, and frenetic dancing that characterizes the culture in the mainstream media. There are deep historical traditions and Charles mines the fertile terrain on an album that is falls clearly within the jazz genre, but is composed with many of the elements of this timeless culture in mind.

Primary among them are the songs created to invoke the archetypical figures that populate this unique celebration. There is Jab Molassie, the blue, fire-breathing carnival demon, as well as the voluptuous Dame Lorraine and the noble Moko Jumbie.

The tune “Moko Jumbie” sums up his efforts perfectly. Though I know little about the character he is summoning, the song has a sturdy melody and features great guitar work from Alex Wintz and keys from James Frances that expertly channel a truly noble spirit.

Elsewhere on the album is the Black Echo suite—a five part series that takes the listener through the history of percussion on the island from an ancient African-inspired bamboo instrument to the steel drum for which Trinidad is best known. On “Black Echo II: Tamboo” and “Black Echo III: Bamboo,” Charles translates the rhythmic lines and call-and-response vocals of bamboo percussion ensembles into a multifaceted jazz bass line.

Of course, reading the liner notes and digging deep into the complex history and traditions of Trinidadian Carnival is not necessary to enjoy the album. Charles has crafted a powerful record that also works on the most basic level as a jazz album infused with the rhythms of the islands.

Throughout, the ensemble work of his band is strong and individually all of the soloists stand out. While Charles plays some serious trumpet on this album, he also leaves plenty of room for his compatriots to show off their chops. For music lovers who enjoy their jazz with a powerful rhythmic attack, this album is among the best I have heard recently.

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