News > Review: CJO’s Holiday Swing

Horns on mute, image by Alice Keeney

There are three things I love in my jazz music. Brushes on the percussion. Horns with a mute. John Cobb on his bari sax. Last night the Charleston Jazz Orchestra gave me a trifecta of my favorite things at Holiday Swing.

Over the last three years of reviewing the CJO big band, the Jazz Artists of Charleston’s Jazz Series, and attending smaller groups performing around town (there’s great music to be had everyday, just check the JAC’s Jazz Around Town calendar), I’ve learned a LOT from these talented musicians. Like the way I learned that the metal brushes percussionists use are called brushes, not ‘whisks’ as I affectionately like to call them.

But I’m off topic. The reality of last night’s Holiday Swing performance is that the CJO’s talented musicians proved once again how talented they are and that Charleston’s own Big Band has evolved and grown in their fifth season.

image by Priscilla Thomas

Spaulding sings The Grinch; image by Alice Keeney

The programming was changed up a bit from previous Holiday Swing‘s. The Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s  Nutcracker Suite opened the show as usual, with three selections, Peanut Brittle Brigade, Sugar Rum Cherry, and Dance of the Floreadores, which featured trumpter Kevin Hackler, John Cobb on bari sax, Mark Sterbank on the clarinet, and Ken Foberg on the slide trombone. There should be special mention of Mark Sterbank’s tenor sax solo in Peanut Brittle Brigade. As a former ballerina and Nutcracker nerd, I was a little bummed that there wasn’t more of the legendary jazz interpretation by Ellington and Strayhorn, but Stephen Spaulding’s vocals on You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch more than made up for it. You won’t find a bigger Grinch fan (the Boris Karloff version) than this gal.

They also played two more beautiful arrangements of Holiday Favorites Do You Hear What I Hear and The Christmas Song before transitioning into the Season Highlights. High fives to soloists Robert Lewis on alto sax, Stephan Berry on trumpet, Gerald Gregory on piano, and Ken Foberg on slide trombone.

Gerald Gregory; image by Priscilla Thomas

One of the brightest young stars of the CJO is pianist Gerald Gregory. I’ve watched his progress for years, and this year he contributed his first arrangement for the CJO, Big Nick, to their Coltrane show, which opened the season. It had a wonderfully big sound with the whole band in on the game. This young man is certainly one to keep your eye on.

Another fun surprise was seeing vocalist Leah Suarez playing the valve trombone in the horn section. This is further proof that Charleston is filled with crazy talented musicians, and don’t you dare try to box them into one instrument only.
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Coltrane’s The Sleeper was arranged by Jon Phillips, and featured outstanding solos by Kevin Hackler on trumpet, Tyler Ross on guitar, John Cobb on bari sax, and Jeremy Wolf on stand up bass. Bassist Jeremy Wolf also contributed his first arrangement for the ever-popular Latin Night show, So Danco Sambo, which featured Stephan Berry on his flugelhorn, which I always love, and Jack Pettit on tenor sax.

Leah Suarez; image by Priscilla Thomas

The best and worst thing about the Season Highlights portion of the show is that you realize how much good music you missed throughout the year…Coltrane, Atomic Basie, Latin Night, and especially World of Bebop (at least I was away for a really great art trip to Chicago!). I did not miss the CJO’s reimagining of Porgy and Bess, and I was blown away by Leah Suarez’s vocals on Gone, Gone Gone/My Man’s Gone Now. Her performance was incredible the first time around, but last night she blew that one out of the water. There were definitely tears in my eyes. It was like seeing straight into the despair of Bess’s soul, a first hand experience of the beauty that a mournful wail can contain. Suarez sent shivers down my spine, in the best way possible.

Mark Sterbank; image by Alice Keeney

Groovin’ High, written by South Carolinian legend Dizzy Gillespie and arranged for the CJO by Mark Sterbank, was another stand out. Maybe we’re all biased by the pride for one of our own, but the band was definitely ‘on’ during this one. Sterbank, Chuck Dalton, and Robert Lewis each gave stand out solos.

The band as a whole was very tight, not the loose and lengthy improvisations you’ll often see in the smaller groups. But you’ve got to keep it tight when you’ve got 18 musicians and Charlton Singleton, the most charismatic maestro ever, playing to a packed house in the Charleston Music Hall (or as we like to call it, the House of Swing).

Charlton Singleton on trumpet. My only complaint, there wasn’t more of this!
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image by Alice Keeney

The JAC is in the midst of their Annual Appeal, opening the new Charleston Jazz House, and have already announced a stellar lineup for their sixth anniversary season: Such Sweet Strayhorn on Feb 22; Little Girl Blue, celebrating Nina Simone, on Mar 22; Silver Messenger on Apr 26; Latin Night – Buena Vista style on Sept 20; Swingelectric on Oct 25; and Holiday Swing on Nov 22, 2014. It’s definitely worth buying your season tickets for this stand out and educational lineup of programming! Visit them at or call 843.641.0011 to get all your info, tickets, and more.

words: Stacy Huggins
images courtesy Jazz Artists of Charleston, by Alice Keeney and Priscilla Thomas

image by Priscilla Thomas

Posted on November 24, 2013 by admin.

Categories: Performing Arts, Review

Tags: Big Band Music, Charleston Jazz Orchestra, Charleston Music Hall, Charlton Singleton, Holiday Swing, Jazz Artists Of Charleston, Leah Suarez, Live Music

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