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Etienne Charles: Creole Orchestra – featuring René Marie

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Performer, Composer and Storyteller Etienne Charles
Performer, Composer and Storyteller Etienne Charles. Photo: etiennecharles.bandcamp.com

First things first: Etienne Charles first burst on the music scene like the nuclear corona of the Caribbean sun. His trumpet-playing, aptly, sounded as if the heat of his playing came from the bluest part of the musical flame; his music was molten, volcanic, when he was playing a barn-burner, and when he played a love song the tenderness of his playing would likely melt your heart. Not that anything in his playing has changed in this momentous orchestral recording quite appropriately entitled Creole Orchestra.

René Marie is given featured billing on the front of the package. Mr Charles’ short acknowledgement of the inspiration he received over time to make this recording tells us the reason she gets top – equal – billing. Hers was not simply the impetus for the music, but “for trusting me,” Mr Charles tells us, “to write a big band show for her even though I had never written Big Band arrangements for a vocalist.”

Etienne Charles: Creole Orchestra - featuring René Marie
Etienne Charles: Creole Orchestra – featuring René Marie

Truth be told, the term ‘big band’ sounds too technical and doesn’t quite capture the nuances of this ensemble writing by Mr Charles, whether Miss Marie is the featured vocalist or not. Featuring beautifully crafted arrangements of beguiling variety and sensuousness, in every lovingly crafted phrase of Creole Orchestra shine brightly and bounce and dance with joie de vivre.

Mr Charles’ love for the titans of large orchestras is clear from the names that he lists as inspiration. Some [names, in addition to the recognisable ones, such as Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Thad Jones and others] are particularly telling. Mary Lou Williams, for one, and [my favourite], Melba Liston, whose orchestral work was legendary despite the fact that she is known to have made just one recording under her own name.

The chosen material is a judicious mix of well-known gems that have become standards thanks to iconic renditions by famous orchestras – Stompin’ At The Savoy by the Benny Goodman Orchestra with Charlie Christian is an example. Others are lesser-known gems in the wider world of music such as A Shade of Jade by Joe Henderson. Still others are held in the highest esteem by aficionados – especially Caribbean aficionados. I refer, of course, to Think Twice by that doyen of Caribbean jazz, the pianist Monty Alexander.

The outstanding compilation of originals come from Mr Charles’ pen, and a couple from Miss Marie as well, adorned with Mr Charles’ arrangements. The soli are generously spread across the outstanding individual performers who make up this orchestra.

And every performer having interiorised this music deeply, gives of himself with idiomatic distinction. The incomparable pianist Sullivan Fortner is one of them, as are guitarist Alex Wintz, saxophonist Godwin Louis, trombonist Michael Dease and drummer Obed Calvaire, as well as bassists Ben Williams and Jonathan Michel.

You may have to listen once or twice to pick out the monumental versatility of cuatro player Jorge Glem but prepare to be breathless. Mr Charles’ horn is aflame throughout. Listening to the way in which he bends the notes in Douens and how he sculpts the long, sustained inventions of Night Train it is clear that there’s not a single semiquaver that hasn’t been fastidiously considered. And, by the way, his star turn on percussion is key to the Caribbean magic that this recording evokes.

And then there is the agile vocalastics of the sultry Miss Marie. She delivers a hugely powerful, and dangerously edgy vocal on a song she made famous on her solo recording and that song is I Want To Be Evil. Meanwhile her mellifluous timbre beguiles everywhere else – especially in Take My Breath Away.

Finally, there is the sign of a really fine orchestra in its adaptability to this diverse music – often mystically tinged with that unique Caribbean rhythm that can be diabolical – even for the finest readers of music. It has already been noted that every player appears to have taken this music to heart as soloists and ensemble prove this unequivocally by seeming to complete each others’ musical sentences like old married couples. I, for one cannot wait for another instalment.

Deo gratis…

etienne charles – creole orchestra epk

Music – 1. Old School; 2. Poison; 3. Think Twice; 4. I Wanna Be Evil; 5. Holy City; 6. Ten to One is Murder; 7. Centrepiece; 8. Douens; 9. A Shade of Jade; 10. Colorado River Song; 11. Stompin’ At The Savoy; 12. Take My Breath Away; 13: Night Train.

Musicians – Special Guests – René Marie: vocals [4, 7, 10, 12]; Brandon Rose: vocals [2]; DJ Logic: turntables [2]. Woodwinds – Michael Thomas: lead alto saxophone [solo 9] and soprano saxophone; Godwin Louis: lead alto saxophone and soprano saxophone [solo 8, 12]; Brian Hogans: alto saxophone [soli 1, 2, 5]; John Ellis: tenor saxophone [soli 1, 6, 7] and bass clarinet; Seth Ebersole: tenor saxophone [solo 5] and clarinet; Paul Nedzela: baritone saxophone [solo 11] and bass clarinet; Gino Izzo: flute [5, 8, 10]. Trumpets – Etienne Charles [soli 1, 5, 6, 8, 13], Jumaane Smith [lead; solo 3], Walter Cano [solo 11] , Anthony Stanco and Giveton Gellen [solo 1]; Trombones – Dion Tucker [solo 1], Michael Dease [solo 3], Corey Wilcox [solo 2], and Chris Glassman [bass trombone]; Rhythm Section – Sullivan Fortner: piano [soli 1, 6 – 8, 11, 13] and Fender Rhodes [solo 2]; Alex Wintz: guitar [soli 2, 9, 12]; Jonathan Michel: basses [ 1, 8, 10 – 12]; Ben Williams: bass [2 – 7, 9, 13]; Obed Calvaire: drums [soli 2, 6, 11 – 13]; Etienne Charles: percussion; Jorge Glem: cuatro [soli 1, 8]; Pascual Landau: marac [solo 1].

Released – 2024
Label – Culture Shock Music EC 010]
[etiennecharles.com]
Runtime – 1:18:12

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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