Etienne Charles: culture shock

Etienne Charles shows Caribbean roots on his new album Culture Shock

Etienne Charles’ debut album cover Culture Shock. Photograph courtesy Etienne Charles/Petra RichterovaTrinidadian Etienne Charles. Photograph courtesy Etienne Charles/Petra Richterova

There are only seven tracks and 42 minutes of music on Culture Shock, which seems a bit mean. But there’s no short change in the music itself.

Etienne Charles is in his early 20s, from a musical family in Trinidad; he’s still doing a master’s at Juilliard. But last year he won the jazz division of the National Trumpet Competition in the US, and this debut album announces him as a really fine player, the quality of his performance and his writing endorsed by the stature of the artists he has assembled here to record with him.

Charles’s Caribbean roots show mainly in the opening and closing tracks. His own liner notes suggest that he thinks of the title track as a mix of Afro-Trinidadian and African-American sounds. But to me it’s more like a musical club sandwich.

Bass and percussion lay down an Afro-Caribbean rhythm at the bottom; above that, the much admired blind pianist Marcus Roberts, Charles’s mentor and a Wynton Marsalis sideman, adds a jagged harmonic line that strays towards atonality; while at the top Charles’s trumpet and Vincent Gardner’s trombone sing haunting blues-soaked melodies. Who winds up culturally shocked I don’t know, but the result, unlike real club sandwiches, holds together and tastes great.

The final track, “Old School”, is a joyous and evocative celebration of Trinidad and its music, spiced with Len “Boogsie” Sharpe’s virtuoso pan and Ralph MacDonald’s percussion. (MacDonald, preoccupied these days with Jimmy Buffett, is another Trinidad prodigy, who wrote, among many other things, the Grover Washington hit “Just the Two of Us” and the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway classic “Where is the Love”.)

The five central tracks wander rewardingly through blues and gospel and swing, with an excursion into George Gershwin as Pam Laws contributes a dreamy “Embraceable You”. A teacher and singer from Tallahassee (there’s a bit of a Florida mafia here), Laws has a pleasantly dark voice, though some of the notes she sings are not quite as good as the ones Gershwin actually wrote.

Etienne Charles, though, sounds as if he’s going places. Culture Shock can be bought from his website, www.etiennecharles.com.