For every cutting-edge artist breaking new boundaries, there’s another working in a well-worn but creative style. But this year’s program by the CJO Chamber Ensemble, a 10-piece group pulled from the 20-piece Charleston Jazz Orchestra, is an intriguing mix of both.
First, the familiar: The Chamber Ensemble, led by CJO Music Director and Conductor Charlton Singleton, has created a program called Standards Of Excellence: The Great American Songbook. The show, presented by Jazz Artists Of Charleston (JAC), pays tribute to legendary writers and composers like Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Billy Strayhorn, Dizzy Gillespie, George and Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter by focusing on some of their best-known compositions.
According to Singleton, the reason behind the familiarity of the program is twofold: first, the ensemble is still fairly new and second, the legendary names may attract a wider audience. “Because the ensemble is still relatively young, I tend to gravitate towards composers and songs that are more popular,” Singleton says. “People that can be identified easily like George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington. Composers who have standards that we’ve come to know as part of the ‘Great American Songbook.’ But another part of it is the recognition by people who may be great fans of these composers. Hopefully that will draw them in.”
Singleton and CJO Executive Director Leah Suárez collaborated on this year’s program after studying what both Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto’s 2015 lineups included. “We look at the showtimes, we look at the programs, we ask people who are knowledgeable about who’s producing and presenting, and we look at that balance and see how we can make the most impact,” Suárez says. “We consider what both festivals are offering, not just in terms of jazz or even music in general, but artistically. We focus on what will be a good solid program that offers the best product and puts our musicians in the best light.”
Suárez adds that another goal that she and Singleton had in mind was using the Chamber Ensemble to generate interest in the Charleston Jazz Orchestra’s overall schedule. “It’s important to keep in mind that this is just a taste of what we do throughout the year,” she says. “The ensemble was created to be accessible to people who might not come to a big band show and maybe feel a little less intimidated by a program like this. It’s really nice to give people a taste of what Charleston jazz is all about.”
As for the unfamiliar, Singleton says that the unexpected lies within the arrangements that the Chamber Ensemble uses. “We are very privileged to have a lot of good arrangers in town,” he says. “So sometimes you’ll get an arrangement of a tune that is totally different, but has elements that people still recognize.”
“I also like to program material that ties into the Lowcountry,” Singleton continues. “George Gershwin is tied to the Lowcountry. Duke Ellington has ties to the Lowcountry. Some of the people who have performed these songs have ties to the Lowcountry. We try to throw in these historical things that people might not realize.”