Ah, what a relief…a CD by a Caribbean Jazz artist that swings, I mean swings and swings really hard, straight up and straight ahead – no chaser. Not to discount any of the recorded works by Caribbean artists in the most recent past especially, I have longed to hear an attempt by anyone of our artists to place and pit our music against the gold standards of Jazz – Classic Jazz.
Check 1 for “Her Favorite Shade of Yellow” by pannist Victor Provost for he has.
There is the issue of the rank and file unrecorded Jazz artists and upstarts from the English-speaking West Indies, not given to tackling Classic Jazz standards, Indeed they avoid it, opting to record strictly original material that is more Smooth than edgy and familiar covers of sub-regional composers. Though commendable, this approach rarely succeeds in attracting critical acclaim beyond the white sands and pellucid waters of our tropical borders.
Some have baulked at my kind of thinking. I am nevertheless throwing out this challenge to the aficionados who do to think Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles, arguably the most prominent upstart from our neck of the woods today. He surveys the compositional minefield of traditional folkloric tales and Calypso and has excelled beyond all conceivable expectations. Add to that Charles’ involvement with Jacques Schwarz Bart’s Voodoo-Jazz Racine experiment.
Pick up the gauntlet and think Shirley Crabbe, a daughter of the British Virgin Islands, based in the US. Largely unknown at home (pun intended) in the Caribbean Sea, her debut album “Home” is trending stealthily upwards since its release in late 2011 to the point where it is being featured in the March issue of the acclaimed Down Beat magazine.
For perspective, think of Andy Narell, an American cum honorary Trinidadian whose solo work in the sphere of Calypso-Jazz and his collaborations, particularly with Mario Canonge, that have extended the range of the pan as a lead instrument from Calypso to French Caribbean rhythms and sensibilities.
One horn, one voice, one pan…and another pan, Victor Provost’s.
Check 2 for “Her Favorite Shade of Yellow” by USVI’s own Victor Provost!
Go back in time to find yet more fine examples of Caribbean Jazz artists swinging their butts off or concocting fresh approaches to syncopation. The examples abound. The few I have given are not necessarily representative.
As for the Pan…the Steel Pan…the Steel Drum – call it what you will – it might be synonymous with calypso and light-weight tropical fare to some, and rightly so. But do not call on Victor Provost to perpetuate this stereotype for he is past that. He has in his debut CD “Her Favorite Shade of Yellow” mastered two originals, six standards and a reinterpretation of Bob Marley – with a walking bass line and then some .” It is not until track 8 that Provost even touches The Calypso, and that is it.
Mark you, if I were to ask Victor about that (and I will), he would probably say that “Her Favorite Shade of Yellow” was not a deliberate attempt to distance himself from Calypso-Jazz. Rather, his song choices afford the steel drum a credible chance of garnering desperately needed prominence in the competitive Jazz market. Or is acceptance the word?
I’ve picked up the glove here, taken my challenge. That is what I think. What do YOU think?
Tag Archives: Etienne Charles
There are times when I worry that in the Caribbean Jazz musicians’ quest to find a happy medium to visit calypso or reggae classics, whatever, he gets carried too far away from the fundamentals that make Jazz what it is. As they try to please an audience who has not paid much attention to or developed an appreciation for Classic Jazz and its precursors, the artists omit syncopation, inventive counterpoints and swing. This can be a problem for the authentication of Calypso-Jazz as a recognized sub-genre.
In spite of the best efforts of the forefathers of Calypso-Jazz – Clive Zanda, Luther François and company – the style has not yet broken sufficient barriers internationally to qualify as a sustainable idiom. Question: How many Caribbean Jazz acts are being called upon to headline major festival franchises or tour established Jazz clubs around the world? My point exactly!
The success of Etienne Charles in the last three years has made a dent on the scene to be sure. But that is just one notch in the totem pole. Where do we find the artists to create the next one?
I do not have the foresight to know who the next upstart will be, whether it will be a fresh face or a familiar one. I cannot tell whether Raf Robertson will serve in that role or if he wants to in the first place. What is certain in my mind is that given Raf’s pedigree as a pianist and keyboardist, he has put out a document in “Majesty” that has raised the bar all that much higher for the seasoned campaigners, let alone newcomers.
“Majesty” by Raf Robertson
[Thunder Dome Sounds 2011]
I take it that Raf’s goal on “Majesty” is to put forward another case for the establishment of a Calypso-Jazz standards songbook. Nothing new here. So what then?
Here is the essential difference in my estimation. “Majesty” is more of a conceptual band record than a vehicle of self-promotion for the leader. The superseding elements, therefore, are the arrangements of the six calypso classics to be found here dispersed as they are with a seminal Clive Zanda contrivance and the leader’s own singular idea about how the two styles fit.
With Kitchener’s “Margie,” Raf goes so far as to offer glimpses into the possibilities for the instrumental explorations written into it – a scat confrontation and an A cappella design are in order.
And as if to demonstrate how the primal instincts of a displaced people might have inspired the growth of the calypso idiom, Ras Shorty I’s “Endless Vibrations” is laden – not overburdened – with Marthadi’s pronounced percussion. Add to that a busy drummer in Larnell Lewis whose myriad overlay of patterns from snare to toms and back again are a perfect foil for the almost seamless tonality eschewed by Raf’s keyboard piano and his co-producer, Eddie Bullen’s keyboard. Amidst all of this musicality, neither keyboardist gets in the way of the other.
Yet there is no pretension as to whose date this is, Raf’s. Herein lies no better testament of how Raf conceives his work: concept is greater than the individuals presenting it.
Sticking to that theme, “Forward Home,” taken from the pen of Andre Tanker, speaks to the modern form of reverse migration, home to Trinidad, not Mother Africa. And unlike the forced migration from Africa that bred this Caribbean civilization, the one described in “Forward Home” is voluntary; whereas slaves coming to the West Indies was migration into bondage, ‘forwarding home‘ again is akin to regaining a lost identity, recapturing true freedom.
You see this paradox, encapsulated in “Majesty,” is not just about the music. A bigger story emerges as you immerse yourself into the cloud. That being the case, sonority for Raf becomes increasingly important in setting the mood of the pieces, recorded in Trinidad, Miami and Toronto and mixed in Bullen’s Thunder Dome Sounds studio in Toronto.
Enter Grant Langford whose saxophones on “Forward Home” and “Life is a Stage” (Brother Valentino) is critical to that sound, which makes “Majesty” work. His is by no means an all-out blowing session. To the contrary, Langford’s role is mainly to colour the harmonic and melodic palette of the arrangements. He does so with aplomb and verve.
Raf is ever-present for the length and breath of the CD, but he assumes individual ownership on three tracks, Clive Zanda’s “Fancy Sailor” (a test piece for the Calypso-Jazz genre if ever there is one); “Slave” courtesy the Mighty Sparrow and “Endless Vibrations.” In all instances, Raf outshines himself. But make no mistake, the pianist’s brilliance comes through on the entire date.
This recording is characterized by the historically relevant rhythmic and vocal approaches to Calypso. The singers play their role – a major one at that – Raf choosing not to divest of the lyrics of songs he covers, except for Sparrow’s “Melda.” Now, although those variations appear all the way down the playlist, Raf succeeds in tying the tracks together into a total band concept, never allowing any one of them to become displaced as an oddity. Hence the flow of the CD serves to sustain interest thus making “Majesty” one continuous hit parade.
And the surprises do not end there. Make “Majesty” a must-have in the Christmas stocking and be treated to the “Majesty” of Calypso-Jazz like you have never heard it before…ever.
Trinidadian trumpeter, bandleader and Assistant Professor of Jazz Trumpet at Michigan State University Etienne Charles has been roped in to headline the Miami Jazz Film Festival 2011, already under way. The festival’s claim to fame is the screening of Jazz documentaries, features and of course live Jazz. Charles’ show takes place on October 01 at 08:00 pm in the WDNA Jazz Gallery, South Florida.
Of the recording artist whose latest CD release “Kaiso” is still hot to the touch (and will continue to sizzle for a very long time to come), WDNA’s Music Director, Michael Valentine effuses, “I consider having Etienne here a major coup. He’s great. Blending calypso rhythms with Jazz traditions in a modern style is not easy and he does it brilliantly.”
Etienne Charles’ ebullient brilliance is on display, Saturday, October 01, WDNA Jazz Gallery, South Florida.