Charlton Singleton was in a good mood, and he had a good reason to be. About 10 minutes before we spoke, he received the Grammy trophy he and Gullah band Ranky Tanky earned back in January for Best Regional Album in American Roots Music.
“It’s a little bit of a relief,” Singleton said, “because it was supposed to be here in March. But I’m actually saving it to open when my wife gets here. So the box is sitting on the table.”
If you became familiar with Singleton through Ranky Tanky, his new release might surprise you. Instead of the Gullah, jazz and gospel mixture he performs with the band, the trumpeter, singer, songwriter and bandleader went in an entirely different direction with his solo album Date Night, released July 3.
The album is split evenly between vocal and instrumental tracks, and the style is a mix of jazz and R&B. It’s laid-back, polished and lightly funky music that one might call “smooth jazz,” though “contemporary jazz” is probably closer to the mark.
That may shock new fans, but the fluid grooves and deft solos on tracks like “Sea Breeze” and “Sunrise” shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s followed Singleton. Whether performing on his own, with a band or as the artistic director of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, one constant in his work has been change.
“If people have seen me doing shows either under the name of Charlton Singleton and Contemporary Flow or the Charlton Singleton Quartet or Quintet, or even the big tribute shows I’ve done at the Music Hall for Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, I think those people might know my versatility,” he said.
Date Night is Singleton’s fourth solo album, and his first foray into smooth jazz. “The first two were more straight-ahead jazz,” he said. “They were like listening to Dizzy Gillespie or Lee Morgan. So this is definitely a curveball.”
The smooth jazz approach is something Singleton had in mind for a decade or so. Local DJ Jazzy J suggested the trumpeter do a cover of “Mister Magic” by Grover Washington, Jr. Despite some protests from Singleton, he did a take of the tune and sent it to the DJ.
“He immediately played it on the radio and I started to get some buzz from some people in contemporary jazz,” he said. “That struck a nerve, and then I met a lot of other people and they were like, ‘You should try it.'”
And with Ranky Tanky’s latest tour behind him, Singleton finally had time to try it, about a decade after the fact. But it took a little convincing to get his band on board for Date Night. Drummer/producer Calvin Baxter II, keyboardist Demetrius Doctor, guitarists Dave Grimm and Greg Loney and bassist LaVonta Green “didn’t want to touch anything in the smooth jazz world,” Singleton said.
“They could do it, but they wanted to stick with gospel and jazz; that was their thing,” he added. “We went into the studio and started working on the tracks, but it basically sat for a while because a lot of people had other things that were going on. But luckily towards the end of last year, we hunkered down and got it done.”
Four of the songs on Date Night are new, and four have been in Singleton’s repertoire for years.
“The older songs are from 1997 and 1998,” he said. “When I wrote those songs, my wife and I were just dating at the time and now it’s come full circle with some of these new songs.”
Singleton is well aware that there’s a certain stigma to the term “smooth jazz,” particularly among straight-ahead jazz fans and musicians. There’s not much improvisation or exploration in smooth jazz, and Singleton actually used to be one of the people that looked down his nose at it for that reason.
“I used to be a purist,” he said. “A lot of people used to think that smooth jazz was only one person: Kenny G. But if you look at the history of it and where contemporary jazz started, you can point to people like Miles Davis and Grover Washington and Marcus Miller. It had a groove.”
And if there are people who dismiss Date Night, Singleton is fine with that. “I’m not worried about any of those folks,” he said, “Especially with my track record of trying to be as versatile as I can.”