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.

It’s only fitting then 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, they have both created distinctly personal styles by drawing from the jazz tradition, but also, brilliantly, from their own musical roots.

Reached in Paris, France, where he was performing, Charles, 31, says 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. “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 and rocksteady, bebop and kongo, from northern Haiti, or belé, a music from Martinique. Bringing those styles to jazz “shines a different light on both musics, “ he says.

“Jazz is creole music. It combines the experience of the New World. There’s a reason why this music was created here,” he continues. “It’s a celebration of freedom. It’s the African-American experience and, furthermore, the African experience in the New World. It’s 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 collective 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.”

It’s a deep knowledge of tradition that seems to have freed Fonseca to experiment.

His latest release, Yo (I) is a sophisticated blend of jazz harmonies and improvisation;  rhythms, voices and instruments from various African sources and electronic.

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

His music has a broad, Pan-African approach evident in pieces such as “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 includes Arabic singing over dense Moroccan and Afro-Cuban grooves and dissonant, Cecil Taylor-inspired clusters .

And on his way to meet the world, Fonseca found home.

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

But just as important, these musicians are not only bringing to jazz new elements drawn from their indigenous styles but a refreshing attitude. 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. Despite a tradition built on figures such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington, creative, ambitious  jazz somehow became at odds with also providing a fun night out — and it has paid a steep price for it.

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

Never mind smart marketing, for Charles, “That’s the way we play music [back home].”

“I grew up playing in a steel band,” says Charles, who played alongside his father, a deejay and steel pan player, in the Phase II Pan Groove Orchestra. “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.”

Even as 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.”

The Miami Herald, October 2014