The Charleston Jazz Orchestra

Wed. Nov. 26

Charleston Music Hall

“We’re gonna swing and swing tonight,” Jack McCray announced to the Charleston Music Hall audience from his podium last Wednesday. It was the official debut of the 20-piece Charleston Jazz Orchestra. McCray, of the newly established Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC), co-produced the tuxedo-clad ensemble’s holiday concert with trumpeter and conductor Charlton Singleton. The elegantly festive event kicked off the inaugural season of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra subscription series.

“This big band is the new kid on the jazz scene block,” McCray boasted. “And Charlton is our Duke Ellington.” The emcee emphasized that many of the musicians on the bandstand were multi-instrumentalists — especially the wind players, who demonstrated a mix of skills, switching between saxes, flutes, and clarinets.

With Singleton carrying on as the bandleader (he often looked more like he was dancing and pumping his fists in approval than he was conducting), the CJO handled two sets of big band and a variety of seasonal pieces. While the second half of the show featured a few numbers with Singleton’s smaller combo and special guest vocalists Ann Caldwell and Tony Burke (both of whom performed at last March’s dazzling “South Carolina Hit Parade” concert), the band’s mesmeric first set stood out. They delivered a sharp, deeply swinging rendition of Duke’s 1960 reworking of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet The Nutcracker with playfulness, precocity, and high spirits.

Drummer Quentin Baxter and bassist Kevin Hamilton added a hefty dose of North African caravan vibes to some of the movements, like the moochy “Arabesque Cookie” (originally “Arabian Dance”).

Heavily syncopated and precisely synchronized, Singleton’s band more than simply jazzed-up a traditional holiday classic; they made it move, jump, and dance. Muted trombones, slinking saxophones, trilling flutes, rumbling bass lines … the lusty expressions and blistering solos of this set were probably far more engaging to many in the hall than the dainty and fruity original score. (

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