Etienne Charles: “Next thing you know, a trumpet arrives in the mail”

Etienne Charles, up-and-coming 22-year-old Trinidadian trumpeter, on his inspirations and ambitions, and his preference for working with older greats

Etienne Charles. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell

I just always liked music from since I was real small, ’cause my mom would come home from work and put on the record player, and I wouldn’t be happy if she didn’t. I would start crying or something if she didn’t put it on. So from then on she knew that I liked music a lot, and my dad played in Phase II Pan Groove. Phase II is the greatest thing on this planet. It’s a band — a steel orchestra — musical rebels, if you will, led by Boogsie Sharpe, the master pannist and arranger/composer. And I was lucky enough to be surrounded by these great folks from an early age, and be able to listen to their music.

My first “instrument” was voice, in the choir, and my first physical, non-bodily instrument was the recorder, when I was about six. I was about five, actually, ’cause you start when you’re seven, so when my sister started — ’cause she was two years ahead of me — she would come home and I would take her recorder and try to mess around with it. So I got a little head start, at Bishop’s Junior School, the greatest — well, Phase II’s the greatest place on earth. Trinidad, in fact, is the greatest place on earth, because two of my favourite places are here — Bishop’s Junior and Phase II panyard. Then I got a trumpet.

My grandmother died when I was nine, and my uncle came down for the funeral. He plays saxophone up in Toronto, and he was telling me he was thinking about switching to trumpet, and he said he was going to send me down a saxophone. Because I really wanted to play saxophone. I thought that was the coolest thing, ’cause you have the owl on Sesame Street who plays the saxophone — Hoot, as they call him. Next thing you know, a trumpet comes in the mail — my uncle sent me a trumpet instead of a saxophone. So I was, like, OK — trumpet it is.

Now I look back at it, I can’t see myself as a sax player. One, it’s a different vibe. Two, it’s a different personality approach to the instrument. And three, everybody plays saxophone. If you’re playing jazz, now, sax players normally have a — well you have many different types of sax players in jazz. You have the smooth players, who play for the ladies, like Kirk Whalum, Kenny G, and those kinda people. And then you have like the bop players and the hardcore jazz players, and they use a big, fat, thick, dirty sound. It’s just a different vibe. After playing trumpet for 12 years, everybody I know tells me, “you’re a trumpet player, we couldn’t see you as a sax player.” I’ve actually seen a picture of Branford and Wynton Marsalis when they’re about three and four, and Branford has a little toy saxophone in his mouth and Wynton has a little toy trumpet in his mouth. Hilarious.

I use everything I’ve learned in life with respect to the recorder and the choir and Phase II. Playing the recorder and singing in the choir taught me a lot just about simple musical uses, in more of a classical sense. And then Phase II taught me first of all to bring a lot more energy to playing the music. Because it’s not just the notes you play — any robot or any monkey could hit a C on a pan, could hit a G on a pan. It’s the energy you bring to playing the pan that makes the vibe. And that’s what makes Phase II. Because the sound — if you ever listen to the sound of Phase II as a whole, the energy is high. High, high, high. And that’s one thing it taught me, is to play with as much energy as possible, as much feeling. You know, play from here, play from where it hurts. Also, it taught me a whole lot more than just music. The first set of real harmonic and melodic variations I heard were Boogsie’s, as opposed to Bach or Beethoven. “Musical Wine”, “I Music”, “Pan Rising”, “Woman Is Boss”, “Dis Feelin’ Nice” — these were all great compositions and arrangements of Boogsie, and his way of making variations on a tune, making sure you’re always hearing the melody and relating what you’re doing — which is the variation — to the melody. Even if you go as far off as planet X, you’re making sure that you can hear where the melody comes from. And that’s helped me play jazz a lot, ’cause in jazz, when you’re improvising, the most important thing is to keep the melody in the listener’s mind.

I’ve been playing with musicians a lot older than myself since I was small. It almost feels weird for me now when I’m on stage with people my age, as I’m accustomed to being the baby in the band, from when I used to play at the Trinidad Brass Institute. I went to Venezuela with them when I was 12, and everybody else was like 15 or 16. Then that continued when I joined Orange Sky [the Trinidadian rock band], where I was the youngest, until Obasi [Springer, the drummer] came in. And now I’m at Florida State University and I was lucky enough to play in the top jazz band from freshman year, and get the solo chair. I was the youngest in that band too, the only freshman, so I had to deal with that when we went on the road. Nobody wanted to room with the freshman.

Now I’m playing with the Leon Anderson Quintet, and I’m by far the baby in that group too. So it’s just continued. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get old. I prefer playing with older musicians, because they always have something to show you. And it’s not just about music either. Musicians — the last thing we want to talk about on a gig is music. We talk about life, we talk about whatever stress is going on. We just sit down at the bar or club or wherever it is, and we’re talking about football, what’s in the news, just kickin’ it.