Miami Nice Jazz Fest has international flair

Etienne Charles performs at the Miami Nice Jazz Festival
Etienne Charles performs at the Miami Nice Jazz Festival

For all its struggles at the marketplace at home, real and perceived, jazz has become a global language. And perhaps there is no greater sign of its success than the fact that for musicians around the world, imitation of American musicians and styles has given way to finding their own voice and reinventing jazz by bringing to it their own traditions.

The result has been invigorating for jazz — aesthetically and practically. These musicians are not only broadening the vocabulary of jazz but also bringing a fresh way of relating to audiences.

Which makes it only fitting that the third edition of the international Miami Nice Jazz Festival opens Saturday with concerts by Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles and Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca.

As players and composers, both have created distinctly personal styles by drawing from the jazz tradition but also, brilliantly, from their own musical roots.

Reached in Paris, where he was performing, Charles, said that over the years, his definition of jazz has changed “quite significantly, and probably will continue to change.”

“[Saxophonist] Wayne Shorter’s definition was ‘I dare you’; for others jazz is ‘the sound of surprise’ or ‘the art of the moment,’” says Charles, 31. “For me it’s a combination of all those things but really, it’s a language. It’s a language that brings people together, a language that can be spoken in many different ways and has developed many dialects.”

His most recent recording, Creole Soul, offers both original music and unexpected versions of songs such as Bob Marley’s Turn Your Lights Down Low, Thelonious Monk’s Green Chimneys and calypso/soca composer Winsford “Joker” Devine’s Memories. Throughout, Charles draws freely from blues, rocksteady, and American bebop, as well as kongo, a rhythm from northern Haiti, and belé, a music from Martinique.

Charles, who will appear with his sextet and feature South Florida-based, Trinidadian born Leon Foster Thomas on steel pan drums, says bringing together those styles “shines a different light on both musics.”

“Jazz is creole music. It combines the experience of the New World. There’s a reason why this music was created here,” he says. “It’s a celebration of freedom. It’s the African-American experience and, furthermore, the African experience in the New World. It’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It’s not one thing. It’s many things. “

For Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, making such connections came naturally. Early in his career, he toured with the Buena Vista Social Club and was the pianist and arranger for singer Ibrahim Ferrer. “That experience helped me a lot,” he says. “One thing is to learn the music, but to live it like I lived it with those guys is something very different.”

That deep knowledge of tradition seems to have freed Fonseca to experiment. While he will appear in Miami with a trio, Fonseca’s latest release, Yo, is a sophisticated blend of jazz harmonies and improvisation; rhythms, voices and instruments from various African sources and electronic music.

“Since I started composing , I was always interested in mixing [jazz with] African roots music,” says Fonseca, 38, speaking from a performance stop in San Francisco. In previous recordings, Fonseca has included clear, direct references to the ritual music of Afro-Cuban Santeria. “You could always feel that influence in my music, but it was never as present as it is in this album. We wanted to break from what we felt was a completed cycle — and there’s nothing better for that than to start from ground zero, in this case, Africa.”

His broad, Pan-African approach is evident in Gnawa Stop, blending Afro-Cuban and North-African music; Bibisa, which draws from mande music from Mali; Quien Soy Yo, which starts like a turbo-charged danzón before setting up a dense weave of African and Cuban elements, or the powerful Chabani, which sets Arabic singing over dense Moroccan and Afro-Cuban grooves and dissonant, Cecil Taylor-inspired clusters.

On his way to meet the world, Fonseca found home.

“Sometimes, in searching for your own style you get further away from who you really are. But sometimes your own style is right there, where you were born.”

These musicians are also bringing a refreshing attitude that harks back to the music’s party-based beginnings, and a tradition fostered by such famous bandleaders as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. Somewhere along the line, jazz lost touch with the dance floor, and having a good time became not only an unnecessary frill, but something to be wary of. Creating ambitious jazz became at odds with providing a fun night out — and the music has paid a steep price.

Both Charles and Fonseca approach their writing and performance with their audience in mind.

“That’s the way we play music [back home],” says Charles, who grew up playing in a steel band with his father. “For me, music has always been about making people move. For us it’s a great compliment when people start dancing. They become part of the music, they start to improvise with us. For me, it’s about people dancing, having a good time — without us sacrificing the quality of the music for it.”

Although he comes from a different tradition, Fonseca concurs.

“It used to be that jazz was dance music, and that has been lost,” he says. “Part of the blame is on us, the musicians. We somehow forgot that music is for interacting, is to be shared with the audience. It’s beautiful to see people at a jazz concert dancing and enjoying themselves. That’s important to me. I want the people listening to feel what I feel, to hear the heartbeat of the music and get up and move.”

If you go

What: Roberto Fonseca at the Miami Nice Jazz Festival

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Olympia Theater at Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami

Info: $30 to $120, MiamiNiceJazzFestival.com, OlympiaTheater.org, or 305-374-2444

What: Etienne Charles at the Miami Nice Jazz Festival

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center , 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay

Info: $35, MiamiNiceJazzFestival.com, smdcac.org, or 786-573-5300