This newly formed quartet may not have settled on a name, yet they performed their first concert at Vassar’s Skinner Hall. This new ensemble was due to a grant from the French-American Jazz Exchange. Etienne Charles, their trumpet leader, was born in Trinidad, yet he not only articulates a sensibility of neighboring islands, but possesses a global awareness of music and its varied roots as a universal language.
Most of the songs performed were composed by Charles. He was accompanied by Vincent Ségal on cello, Jorge Glem on cuatro (which looks like a small mid-sized guitar with treble range), and Or Bareket, born in Jerusalem and raised in Buenos Aires, on bass. Ségal is from Pairs, yet his wife is from Martinique. Glem is from Venezuela and his father is a noted cuatro composer. Charles also plays the caja (box, in this case, treble).
Charles defined creole as something born in the New World. They opened with “Festejo,” an improvisational melody stemming from the Afro-Cuban tradition with Charles on caja, each taking a turn to lead. “Waltz” began with an astonishing middle-eastern sensibility due to its Sephardic roots, slid into a rather Dutch mode, then became distinctively Spanish when Charles picked up his trumpet. “Choro” offered a taste of calypso with horn and cello vibrantly swapping lead.
On trumpet Charles plays with subtle dynamics, so that each note has a special inflection. Ségal is an accomplished cellist who can pick and improvise with alacrity, delivering a surprising array of sounds. “Essaouira,” a Mediterranean city in Morocco, supplied a low-key Moroccan-inspired wandering in a desultory, meditative jam session where Bareket on bass excelled.
“Bily” by Jorge Glem, the father of the current performer, was a moranga in 5/8 time that escalated into double time. I have never seen a string instrument played as fast as Glem played this piece. “Continuum” was a somber modulated elegy for the past four hundred years of slavery in the New World. Slavery is still legal under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution if you have committed a crime, which is why there are for-profit prisons where prisoners make ten cents an hour.
“Theater of the Absurd” was inspired by a lecture of the essayist Ta Nashi Coats. Here dissonance wove in-and-out like a connecting thread. “Joropo” featured a mix of European and African dance tunes, somewhat resembling the Venezuelan fandango. They had not found their own title for this romantic, chameleon piece.
“On my own” by Ari Salvador, a Brazilian who lived in Paris, was described as the music from which bossa nova originated, especially the work of Antônio Carlos Jobim. I found this piece enchanting and would have liked to hear more of this delicate vein.
“St. Pierre” celebrated various strains in the city of that name on the island Martinique. Oral tradition holds that early New Orleans music was inspired by music from Martinique, but the 1902 volcanic eruption destroyed the whole city and all records. The French painter Paul Gauguin was at that time living outside the city where over 30,000 people died. Gauguin was trekking through the woods at the time and survived, yet lost all his paintings stored in his cabin. Some of the paintings that he sold were preserved and are now in a small museum. On this remarkable ensemble piece all players took virtuoso solos, which supplied that cathartic climax any excellent concert needs. For encore they played some Bob Marley.
The compositions of Etienne Charles feature eliding migrations among various musical styles. He displays a gift for invisible shifts. His trumpet is clear, mellow with precisely articulated diction. He is a traveler in rhythms and melodies to be watched (and certainly heard!). A YouTube interview with Charles appears below.