Recording of June 2019: Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol 1

Etienne Charles: Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol 1

Etienne Charles, trumpet, percussion; Brian Hogans, Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; David Sánchez, tenor saxophone; Sullivan Fortner, James Francies, piano, Fender Rhodes; Alex Wintz, guitar; Luques Curtis, Russell Hall, Ben Williams, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums; D’Achee, congas. With: Claxton Bay Tamboo Bamboo, Laventille Rhythm Section, other percussionists.

Culture Shock EC007 (2 LPs). 2019. Etienne Charles, prod.; Glenn Brown, Christian Burkett, David Darlington, Mark Wilder, engs. DDA. TT: 67:20

Performance ****

Sonics ****

Etienne Charles, the Trinidadian trumpeter, percussionist, and Guggenheim fellow, has a knack for album concepts. His 2013 album, Creole Soul, starts with an incantation from an actual Voodoo priest and goes on to cover Creole-influenced tunes from Bob Marley and the Mighty Sparrow. Thelonious Monk is also in the mix, with his “Green Chimneys,” which features a calypso melody Charles speculates Monk first heard in New York’s San Juan Hill, a Caribbean neighborhood where Monk lived for a while.

Like Nina Simone, Phil Woods, and Christian McBride, Etienne Charles is a graduate of the Juilliard School, where he studied trumpet with Joe Wilder. Before that he studied with pianist Marcus Roberts at Florida State University. Still in his 20s, Charles already has a faculty appointment at Michigan State University. And on his latest project, he plays his butt off.

Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol 1 is inspired by Trinidad’s version of that traditional pre-Lent festival, but the album goes much deeper than beads and booze. According to the liner notes, by Tony Bell, “the arc of tunes” on Carnival “suggests a movement out of slavery via resistance to imposed order.” Not sure I got all that from listening, but the listening was fun.

Charles is joined on Carnival by a core crew no less skilled than he is. The main guy on keys is James Francies, the synesthetic pianist who, at 22, has already toured and recorded with Jeff “Tain” Watts, Chris Potter, and The Roots; you can often hear Francies on The Tonight Show. Sullivan Fortner— Cécile McLorin Salvant’s collaborator on her recent Grammy-winning album, The Window—takes keys on several tracks. Brian Hogans, a member of the Sean Jones Quintet, plays alto sax throughout to David Sánchez’s tenor. This group is joined by two drummers, two bassists, and traditional Trinidadian percussion troops including the Claxton Bay Tamboo Bamboo and the Laventille Rhythm Section.

The music on Carnival is a mix of straight-ahead jazz and Caribbean sounds. The album’s first track, “Jab Molassie,” was inspired by the “molasses devils,” who, at Trinidad’s Carnival—usually painted blue—embody the vengeful spirit of a slave who was boiled alive in molasses. “The haunting melody reflects agony and ecstasy,” Bell says in his note: “Hell on earth overcome.” Track 2, “Dame Lorraine,” evokes a sashaying Trinidadian woman. The ensuing tracks are similarly programmatic.

Carnival was recorded mainly by Rob Darlington, who’s worked with Ambrose Akinmusire, Regina Carter, and Eric Alexander, among many others. Some tracks were recorded on location in Trinidad. Darlington did all the mixing, with mastering by Mark Wilder, who mastered several Grammy-winning albums from Salvant.

The two LPs of Carnival are pressed in the Czech Republic, and they’re solid. (The album is also available on CD and streaming.) One side of my review copy had some very small pits that didn’t affect the sound; otherwise, the 180gm pressings were excellent, with well-centered labels and no other visible defects. The playing time is just 67:20—too much music for a single LP but, spread over four sides, short enough to permit nice, wide runout grooves, hence less inner-groove distortion.

Curiously, the sound improves from first cut to last. In track 1 of side A the sound isn’t bad, but it’s a little overcooked and strident, with too much going on, all of it up front in the mix. The next track sounds better, and side B better still, with more natural instrument sounds and a wider, deeper soundstage.

Not only the sound, but the music itself gets better. “Black Echo,” the five-part suite that begins on side C, documents local Trinidad’s response to the 1884 oppression of drums by colonial authorities, who saw the instruments as a means of inciting violence. These five tracks show how the response to this oppression pushed the development of Trinidad’s traditional music. “‘Black Echo’ takes the listener on the sonic evolutionary arc from the African drum to the tamboo bamboo to the orchestrated iron band, finally to the steelband,” says Bell’s liner note. “‘Black Echo’ is the veneration of the original intent and the creation story of Trinidad Carnival music.” Carnival ends with a “Lullaby” and an ode to “Freedom,” the latter featuring two “master drummers” recorded at the Trinidad Theater Workshop, and indeed they are magnificent. What better way to celebrate emancipation in a culture steeped in African tradition?—Jim Austin

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