Charleston Jazz Orchestra
Charleston Music Hall
Nov. 23

As musicians, composers, arrangers, and bandleaders, Duke Ellington and Charlton Singleton have a good bit in common. The late jazz/swing great and the local trumpeter/conductor place high value on technique and originality. Both arranged great works with a sense of cleverness, and pushed their big bands to be as dynamic, expressive, and tight as possible. Both Ellington and Singleton also nurtured their own love affairs with classical concert music.

Ellington embraced the idea that classic pieces from any genre of music were always up for reinterpretation, sans restriction or rules. Singleton follows that approach in his work with his colleagues in the Charleston Jazz Orchestra. The local ensemble regularly puts its own unique style and flavor on old standards and new arrangements. Last Wednesday evening’s program offered an impressive variety of material from the jazz, classical, and pop music worlds.

For many longtime supporters and friends of the Jazz Artists of Charleston, the organization that produces each CJO event, the concert was their first opportunity to acknowledge and mourn the recent passing of JAC board member Jack McCray. The organization and orchestra tastefully paid tribute to McCray; three poinsettia arrangements decorated the stage, and the podium where McCray emceed the shows stood alone at stage right with one of his favorite fedora hats sitting prominently on top. The entire orchestra walked to their spiffy, white-pained music stands wearing matching black fedoras as well.

Singleton and JAC Executive Director Leah Suárez strolled out together and, without saying a word, turned to face a backdrop with a projected silhouette-style image of McCray. The band and its audience sat quietly for a moment of silence.

Then, the 17-piece CJO jumped into their own slight reworking of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite, a collection of jazz interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. A terrific rhythm section of pianist Tommy Gill, bassist Jeremy Wolf, and drummer David Patterson pushed a crisp swing rhythm on “Overture,” a strong intro with huge swells of brass and saxophones. “Toot Toot Tootie Toot (Dance of the Reed-Pipes)” bounced with plenty of muted wah-wahs, twisted melodies, and hiccup-y accents from clarinets.

Patterson played his kit with a crispness and precision that contrasted his more aggressive be-bop/free style on display at small-combo gigs. Wolf’s warm bass tone was prominent in the mix without being overpowering.

Other Nutcracker Suite set highlights included a bright and percussive trumpet solos from Kevin Hackler during the upbeat “Peanut Brittle Brigade (March),” the rumble of Patterson’s hand-tapped tom-toms on the slinky-slow “Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy),” and the swapping of trombone and clarinet solos between the familiar melodies of “Entr’acte.”

“The Volga Vouty (Russian Dance)” was brassy and upbeat. Marc Sterbank and Jack Pettit swapped riffs on the main theme on clarinet and sax respectively during “Chinoiserie (Chinese Dance),” both handling the little trills and tricky double-stops with care.

“Danse of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers)” pulsated with a syncopated 4/4 rhythm as opposed to the waltzy 6/8 signature in the original symphonic piece. We spotted Hackler playing tambourine on the back row during “Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance).”

Suárez provided warm and sensitive vocals on a number of pieces in the first and second sets. CJO woodwind player Jon Phillips stepped up front during the “Swing! Swing! Swing!” mini-set to share harmonies with Singleton and Suárez on his peppery, fast-tempo arrangement of composer George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland.”

The audiences seemed to be in a more solemn mood than at previous concerts, which is understandable, but the band was super-tight and dynamic. Singleton seemed a little less animated than usual, as well.

A slow-rolling “My Melancholy Baby” — an old standard handled by Al Bowlly, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby, among others —kicked off a three-song conclusion listed as “For Jack.” Two Count Basie Orchestra tunes — the crisp and swingin’ “Shiny Stockings” (written by Frank Foster) and a lively swing tune “Corner Pocket” (composed by Freddie Green) closed the show on a cheery and encouraging note.