“You’ll leave swingin’,” Jazz Artists of Charleston vocalist Leah Suárez promised as Friday evening’s Great American Songbook show commenced.
Her claim was accurate, thanks to the excellent closing arrangements of Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones?”— complete with a rousing five-part horn arrangement — and Cole Porter’s “What’s This Thing Called Love?” arranged by alto saxophonist Robert Lewis, whose extended solo on the song was a highlight of the evening.
The 10-person Charleston Jazz Orchestra Chamber Ensemble performed 10 songs, clocking in at about 70 minutes, with no encore. Although the roughly three-fifths capacity audience at the Music Hall stood for their ovation and hoped for more, the concert’s length felt just about right. Unlike with the full 20-piece Charleston Jazz Orchestra, where a jazz rookie may be floored by the sheer weight of the production, the Chamber Ensemble feels more like, well, chamber music.
The six-song center of the set — punctuated by Suárez’s inspired singing on “My Favorite Things” — felt like it began to drag during Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark,” but guitarist Tyler Ross’s arrangement of “All the Things You Are,” with its complicated tonal and melodic shifts that kept the entire band on their toes, the show picked back up.
Throughout the night, the performance had a distinct feeling of locals playing for locals. Suárez and maestro Charlton Singleton joked with the crowd and offered improvised, humorous introductions to each song. But for a listener arriving at their first Piccolo performance after a week of Spoleto shows, the casual, down-home delivery may have been off-putting.
To reclarify, the CJO Chamber Ensemble’s approach to performance worked perfectly for this concert, played to a hometown crowd, but on the road — if the band were to venture out — the serious standards to which they hold their music warrants the same “what you are about to witness will be significant” aura that Spoleto USA lends to its performances, from the manner of the ushers all the way to the introductions and lighting.
Consider that an observation, not a negative, of which there are few to none to note. And the positives are many.
When the performance opened with drummer Ron Wiltrout’s staggering lead into Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” it served as a striking first reminder of the professionalism and world-class chops that Charleston’s community of jazz artists now possesses. Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” followed, with equally impressive improvisation from baritone saxophonist John Cobb. Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” offered the first chance for guitarist Ross and bassist Jeremy Wolf to interplay and let loose.
The Charleston Jazz Orchestra Chamber Ensemble is an undeniably talented band, giving continued life — albeit with soft, subdued breaths — into the works of the original jazz era’s classic composers. For a casual jazz fan, observing them in a non-social, complete-attention theater scenario, an hour-long recital is the perfect dose.
I’ll be back the next time they play — with my grandparents — because I can’t wait to see their reactions when the classic songs of their youth are presented with such grace and style.