5c33/1243272631-mistral.leah11_resized.jpgI caught Leah Suárez’ early set last night at gig number three (of 13) at the Jazz Artists of Charleston’s “Upstairs at Mistral” series at Mistral Restaurant (99 S. Market Street). The JAC president and local musician/vocalist fronted a quartet comprised of old Toca Toca bandmates: clean-cut guitarist David Linaburg (returning to Charleston from N.Y.C.), drummer Nick Jenkins, and bassist Kevin Hamilton, and pianist Gerald Gregory.

Every night of the series includes two sets from each featured act, at 7:30 p.m. and at 10:30 p.m. Sunday’s 7:30 p.m. set was already sold out by mid-weekend, and the line was long by the time I landed upstairs. Patrons must enter through the bank building at 180 Meeting Street (around the corner from South Market Street) and up the elevator to the second floor to get to Mistral’s cozy jazz room.

Just after the band finished setting up in the corner — under the big windows overlooking the Market — folks packed into the little tables in both wings of the room and readied themselves for a full set of Latin-styled jazz.

The two young bartenders on hand seemed a little overwhelmed (and the bar seemed a little understocked), but they kept their cool and gradually served everyone from the wine and apps menu. Folks were patient, the hostess was accommodating, and everything was dandy.

Various pieces of artwork by local painter Nathan Durfee covered the walls, including the image of the “community bass” commissioned for the front cover of JAC’s handsome program. The painting still hangs in the brick hallway leading from the jazz room to the restaurant downstairs. It’s currently available by bid in the JAC’s fund-raising silent auction; the winner will be announced during intermission at the JAC’s upcoming Holy City Homecomin; concert at the Charleston Music Hall on Tues. June 2.

After a grand introduction from JAC board member Jack McCray, Suárez and her band lilted into a slow-rolling rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and a mellow bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim (with Suárez crooning expressively in Portuguese). The band sounded slinky and very together, with Gregory tinkering more than a few tasty phrases and Linaburg adding deep tones on his electric six-string. Jenkins and Hamilton hooked up easily in every groove within dynamic ranging from the ultra-quiet to the upbeat and wild. Hamilton’s smooth tone and precise playing style works well with any jazz combo (or big band), and it certainly sounded terrific paired with Jenkins’ spacious brush work and loose feel.

Upstairs @ Mistral continues this week:

Mon. May 25 — Caravan
Tues. May 26 — Gradual Lean
Thurs. May 28 — The Charleston All-Stars
Fri. May 29 — The Pulse Trio
Sat. May 30 — Elise Testone
Sun. May 31 — Charlton Singleton Quintet
Mon. June 1 — The Duda Lucena Quartet
Wed. June 3 — Tommy Gill Trio
Thurs. June 4 — Scandal in Bohemia
Fri. June 5 — Tenor Madness

(photos by T. Ballard Lesemann)