Piccolo Spoleto's opening night Sunset Serenade Concert never fails to slap a great big exclamation point on the start of the season, and last night proved no exception. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra, under our soon to be missed Resident Conductor Scott Terrell, set the mood from the first drop of his baton and primed the crowd for the magical talent to come. But, first things first...
The large crowd settled in as Wycliffe Gordon made his microphone check to the four-on-the-floor tick of a metronome. He merely had to scat out a few riffs over the piano, and the audience was at attention. Now I don't know about you, but when a microphone check draws applause, special things are definitely in the works. The checks completed, only a few moments passed before Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker took the stage followed by Maestro Terrell.
A medley of tunes from Chicago kicked off the show, with just the slightest hint of muddiness in tempo. Everyone found the groove within a few bars however, and soon the audience was singing along to "All That Jazz." As each phrase passed, the orchestra gelled tighter and tighter, and the closing ragtime tempo led to syncopated heaven.
Gershwin's "Embraceable You" followed at a Fred and Ginger approved graceful trot, reminding all present of the deep connection that Gershwin has not only to Charleston, but also to the very spot where we were now seated.
Saxophonist Doug Graham gave us a Satch á la Hawkins reading of "St. Louis Blues," leading into a medley of Ellington tunes that once again had the audience singing along. Next up, the CSO Pops gave an absolutely wondrous reading of Morton Gould's insidiously catchy "Pavanne." The stick-in-your-head (but can't name...) melody plays hide and seek with a plucked rhythm until gaining traction and creating a true sense of jazzy déjà vu.
The Pops closed with Charleston's own Dr. Earl Maves' "Big Band Blast," always a local favorite, and wonderfully read with just the right touches of gentle swing and cheeky schmaltz.
Wycliffe Gordon was then introduced by Ellen Dressler-Moryl, who presented him with a plaque that deemed this "Piccolo Spoleto's Year of the Trombone." Mr. Gordon then proceeded to lay down the law. Joined onstage by pianist Ehud Asherie, bass man Herman Burney (in a most welcome return to the Holy City), and (do I even have to say his name?) Quentin Baxter on drums, this formidable quartet kicked right in to "Bassin St. Blues," effortlessly floating the audience down river to the heart of jazz. Gordon's vocals split the difference between Satchmo's gravel and Willie Dixon at a whisper with a control of pitch and tone that would make Bjorling jealous. Oh, and he plays trombone too. The mixture of feral grit and burnished sheen that poured from his instrument hiked the orchestra from their A game to an A++ game and floored the audience, even as they shouted along with the call and response of each chorus. Gordon's solo coda gave a taste of how this musician can make that bone sound like just about anything.
Next up came another blues tune, written by a student of Gordon's, giving him a chance to explore those 12 bars with a mute and plunger. "Stormy Weather" hit us next at a swinging clip, showing how even Mr. Baxter's most complex fills perfectly lead into following phrases without a trace of ego. The blustery introduction to "I Can't Get Started" led to a slowly building sense of pleading, rising to a wail, then falling back again. Once again, Wycliffe's coda included sounds of the "how did he do that?" variety, leaving jaws agape.
The show closed with Ellington's classic "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing," giving each member of the quartet a chance to solo, the audience one last sing-along, and a perfect cap to the start of the Year of the Trombone. —Robert Bondurant