His trumpet sound is smooth yet powerful and he has not allowed his music to grow cold during this pandemic. Charlie Sepúlveda, “El Trompetista,” has found unique ways to bring his music to his fans. He recently gave a free early Sunday evening concerts on Playa Azul beach at his adopted hometown of Luquillo, where listeners could donate if they wished, and many did.
With a strong easterly breeze blowing tall palm fronds decidedly to the west, the sound of the lightly breaking surf, and dusk changing to dark, Charlie’s version of Latin Jazz turned the beach concert into an iconic island serenade. His pianist, Eduardo Zayas, accompanied him and Charlie’s wife Natalia Mercado offered sweet vocals. “For me it was magical,” Charlie said.
Luquillo is Charlie’s kind of place. A few years before and just yards away at La Pared Beach, Charlie wed Natalia in a sunny afternoon beach ceremony.
Charlie plays traditional Latin jazz with Afro-Cuban elements. “I play the traditional form of Latin jazz mixed with hard Latin bop and always with Puerto Rican styles like Bomba, Plena and Danza. I don’t want to lose touch with the early Latin Jazz that inspired me.”
Charlie’s last big gig, just before the pandemic, was a sold-out, three-night run at the famed Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center in New York during a cold February with his band The Turnaround, a sextet. Said one reviewer, “The performance was historic for several reasons. It dispelled the misconception that Puerto Rico lacks a robust jazz scene. Also, the sold-out performances demonstrated there is a demand for Puerto Rican Jazz that is not being filled (club owners, take heed!).”
In fact, Charlie is planning to open a jazz club in Luquillo. “It’s going to be called the C-Note, and we are going to offer wine, bourbon and tapas. We need a jazz club in Puerto Rico. It’s going to be a fun place.”
Charlie wants to produce a fifth Luquillo Jazz Fest, a yearly event he founded and produced Memorial Day weekend at the center square in Luquillo. Thousands came to hear his music and the jazz greats he attracted, including Puerto Rican conga player Giovanni Hidalgo, Cuban-born singer Jon Secada, trumpet player Luis Perico Ortiz, Brazilian singer Débora Brum, and Pedro Guzmán of Jibaro Jazz. Charlie always included a set with his student band from the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in Miramar, where Charlie teaches jazz trumpet and has four jazz ensembles.
In Puerto Rico, Charlie has played the biggest social venues, for a while rocking the house Saturday evenings with his Big Band at the El San Juan Hotel, and with his quartet at the marble-filled lobby of the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. He’s had regular stints at the El Convento Hotel and La Concha Hotel. He can play with his Big Band, The Turnaround, his quartet or solo. In any ensemble, his energetic trumpet dominates, but he is not selfish, every bandmember plays a solo as is traditional in jazz groups.
It was at the Vanderbilt where Charlie first saw Natalia in the audience. He turned to his piano player and said, “I’m going to marry that girl.”
Surprisingly, few people know that he is a four-time Latin Grammy nominee and a one-time winner. In 2017, Jon Secada and Charlie and his Big Band won a Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Album for their tribute album “To Beny Moré With Love.” Charlie and The Turnaround earned three Latin Grammy nominations for Best Latin Jazz Album for separate 2008, 2009 and 2017 albums, and a Billboard award nomination for Best Jazz Video.
New fans might hear him play a small venue and have no idea they are listening to a Grammy winning Latin Jazz musician who has played with greats Wynton Marsalis and piano player Eddie Palmieri, who is Charlie’s cousin and mentor. Charlie has also played with legends Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaría, Dizzy Gillespie and others.
His start in the music business foretold his future success. In the early 1990s, Charlie was the trumpeter for Hilton Ruiz, the Puerto Rican jazz pianist, in three albums, and he participated with Tito Puente in two albums. His trumpet can be heard on “Rei Momo”, David Byrne’s (Talking Heads) first solo album and exploration into Latin music, which also featured legends Willie Colon and Celia Cruz.
Listeners can find his music on his Pandora channel, and he can be found on Spotify, Amazon Music and YouTube. Throughout his three-decades career, he has created 12 CDs from various labels. 2017 was a busy year for him, besides the Jon Secada album. After the September hurricanes ravaged Puerto Rico, Charlie wrote the songs for his cd “Songs for Nat,” about his devotion to Natalia, which he created with The Turnaround. The song titled “Exit 4” is named for the highway exit Charlie would take to see her. “402B Blues” was the number of Natalia’s apartment. “Amelia” is the name of Natalia’s daughter from a prior marriage.
In that same year, he wrote with his band “Mr. EP-A Tribute to Eddie Palmieri,” who also appears on some tracks, and which is one of his three Latin Grammy-nominated albums. A creative jazzy hip hop song features the clear lyrics of Puerto Rican underground rapper Siete Nueve in a song called “Si tú Sabes.” Charlie would like one day to mix jazz with reggaetón in an album with Bad Bunny or Yankee Daddy.
A musician creates, and this month Charlie and The Turnaround will issue “This is Latin Jazz,” a tribute album to early Latin Jazz greats. “It’s for the roots of Latin Jazz. We can’t lose that,” Charlie says. When he thinks of traditional Latin Jazz, Charlie thinks of forerunners like Cuban musicians Chucho Valdés, Machito, Mario Bauzá, conga player Poncho Sanchez, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and Cal Tjader, a non-Latino jazz musician.
In the Eddie Palmieri tribute album, rapper Siete Nueve finishes the song with the title lyrics, “Si tú sabes.” Yes, Charlie knows.