The Charleston Jazz Orchestra adds a little bit of soul 

A chat with the JAC's Charlton Singleton and Leah Suárez

Led by conductor and trumpeter Charlton Singleton, the Charleston Jazz Orchestra (CJO) continue their 2012 concert series with a program titled Swingin' Soul, featuring big-band arrangements of classic soul, R&B, and Motown faves. Organized by the Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC), it veers away from the swing and jazz sets they usually deliver. JAC executive director Leah Suárez will be the featured vocalist of the evening.

This week's concert will be the third CJO show since the sudden passing of JAC board member Jack McCray last November, McCray was a longtime jazz writer and a co-producer and emcee of JAC events since the organization's formation in 2006. The CJO performed a Holiday Swing program and tribute to McCray in November. They last hit the Music Hall stage in January for the Symphonic Swing set.

The CJO will perform two shows on Thursday (7 p.m. and 10 p.m.) with two sets per show.

Singleton and Suárez spoke with City Paper about the 2012 season this week:

City Paper: This Swingin' Soul show seems like a chance for the big band to loosen up a little bit and get unusually funky.

Charlton Singleton: A lot of the songs we picked had some great horn parts already there. A lot of the tunes back in the day had large horn sections. I remember watching this Little Richard live video where had his piano, a drummer, and a guitar player with four tenor saxophones. Then you have Ike Turner's band, and, of course, James Brown's band ... all of them had these big horn sections, so it's natural fit that way. We've got five different arrangers on this particular show, so there different interpretations, too. It lend itself pretty easy.

City Paper: With each passing year, the band sounds tighter and the chemistry seems stronger, even on simple or delicate pieces. It's a different live concert experience than most local jazz events.

Leah Suárez: The more we do this — especially with the band doing two concerts a night this year — the stronger and better it gets. Everybody is really invested in this at this point. This is our year to push the band to the next level, hopefully. And, as Charlton said, we have some terrific in-house arrangements, and we're trying to focus more on working on new arrangements and creating original material than before.

Charlton Singleton: Over the years, about 10 members of the CJO have offered arrangements for the band — and that's 10 out of 20 or 22 musicians. That's a good situation to have. It feels good to be able to go to them and request that they write an arrangement. You can see their personality come out of it, but they know the strengths and weaknesses of the band so well, they can emphasis the strongest personalities of the band very well.

Leah Suárez: That's part of the tradition of big band. Bandleaders would write for their players.

City Paper: Brassy horn sections seem to be one of the common threads between classic soul music and big band music from decades before, but the rhythms are pretty different. How will the band make some of these songs swing in its own way?

Charlton Singleton: There are some pieces that will definitely be close to original versions, but we'll be able to swing on others very easily. You'll hear the walking bassline as opposed to the funky thump. We can make a switch here and there without making it too hard for the audience.

Leah Suárez: That was a challenge, really. Every time an arrangement would come up, we wondered if the audience would be able to get it. This is material that the audience is very familiar with, so we wanted to be careful about pushing the boundaries.

City Paper: Who brainstormed on what to play in this set, and what are some of the standouts?

Charlton Singleton: Since this show has been on our brain for a year and a half, at least, a lot of it was in talking with Jack and Leah about the soul music and material that they enjoyed listening to. Some of it came from talking with my parents and other older relatives about the music they loved when they were young. I recalled some of the old juke joint music I heard as a kid, too. I formulated the repertoire from there. We had to say, "That's enough!" at one point, because there's just so much to choose from. But we picked some strong stuff that fits the rhythm and blues feel of song that I'm trying to create for the evening.

City Paper: What are some of the tunes attendees can expect to hear?

Charlton Singleton: Well, at the last show, we did a little teaser for the crowd with a version of Junior Walker and the Allstars' "Shotgun," which was a huge shot in the arm for the people who were there, Some of them were like, "Oh, man, I can't wait to hear the rest of this." We'll also have some Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and more. Leah will be singing a Shirelles tune, too.

City Paper: The CJO has a rotating lineup, but there are certainly some core players who stand out. But no matter who's in which section for the night, it seems like everyone's very much on the same page.

Charlton Singleton: Oh yeah, pretty much everyone in the band have the experiences of playing with each other before, whether in small combos or big bands. We all knew each other, and we knew each other's style and playing ability. We all know the style of playing as big band musicians, and everybody understands their role. We don't have any bad attitudes in the band, so it's been a great experience for everybody.

Leah Suárez: I think everyone appreciates the work they we all put into this and where it comes from. This is a musician-run organization, and these musicians are working their own gigs in the community as well. It's a unique situation. We've got a lot going on, but everyone involved has a lot of respect for Charlton as a bandleader and there's a lot of support all the way around.

City Paper: It seems like the JAC and the CJO are as determined as ever to press ahead with the ideas and vision that Jack McCray was so involved with. How does it feel moving ahead?

Leah Suárez: We've had to grow up a lot as a band and community. We had a November show right after Jack died, and we weren't able to feel much then. We're still pretty numb and very much in a grieving process, but we have to move forward. We're committed to our community and Jack would kick our asses if we didn't keep the energy moving. We're trying to be resilient and flexible. We're improvising. That's what jazz musicians do best. We play to the changes. We know we've been blessed to have this going on for the last five years. We shared Jack's vision and now it's time to celebrate his life and get moving. There's not a day that goes by when we don't think of him or feel him there. It's very much in the music, too. He moved with the times and evolved, and we have a responsibility to do that and follow his example. We'll be moving forward in a very deliberate way, and staying true to the music.

Swingin' Soul roster:

Charlton Singleton (artistic director, conductor, vocals)

REEDS
Robert Lewis (alto sax)
Jack Pettit (alto sax)
Mark Sterbank (tenor sax)
Jason Bellack (tenor sax)
John Cobb (baritone sax)

TRUMPETS
Chuck Dalton
Stephan Berry
Dan Bellack
Kevin Hackler

TROMBONE
Mitch Butler
Mike Gennaro
Teddy Adams
Stephen Spaulding

RHYTHM SECTION
John Oden (guitar)
Tommy Gill, Jr. (piano)
Ben Wells (bass)
Ron Wiltrout (drums)

VOCALS
Leah Suárez


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