Charleston Jazz Orchestra
Charleston Music Hall
March 24

You never know what type of wild musical mischief might take place at a Charleston Jazz Orchestra concert. Over the last four years, conductor Charlton Singleton has led his big band much farther from the typical swing/jazz comfort zone than most local fans ever expected. They’ve dabbled in classical compositions, reworked pop classics, raved on Latin rhythms, and twisted new melodic hooks and themes out of seemingly untouchable jazz and blues standards.

Last Saturday night, Singleton and his 17-piece orchestra continued their lively 2012 concert series with a two-show program called “Swingin’ Soul,” featuring big-band arrangements of old-school soul, R&B, and Motown hits. Organized and presented by the Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC), the back-to-back concerts on Saturday’s marked the third CJO event at the Music Hall since the sudden passing of JAC board member Jack McCray last November. The place was packed for both of Saturday’s sets.

For the early show at 7 p.m., JAC Executive Director Leah Suárez, a featured vocalist of the evening, joined Singleton on stage to welcome the crowd and talk about the 2012 season. It was a lengthy but heartfelt introduction during which she thanked the sponsors and season ticket holders for their continued support.

In a surprise move, Singleton and the rhythm section — John Oden (guitar), Tommy Gill (piano), Ben Wells (bass), and Ron Wiltrout (drums) — opened the show with a peppery version of “Green Onions,” the stompin’ instrumental tune by Booker T. and the MG’s. Singleton normally blows a trumpet when he’s not conducting, but he skillfully played the organ at stage right beside Wiltrout’s drum kit for the opening numbers. The horn players sauntered on stage and took their places, but Singleton stayed on the keys for B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone,” singing lead and nodding at the soloists and rhythm section between verses.

As part of his introduction to James Brown’s version of “Night Train,” Singleton told a story of the old Riverside Beach neighborhood at Remley’s Point in Mt. Pleasant and the legendary White’s Paradise, a dance hall that hosted numerous African-American big bands, combos, and soul artists decades ago. It was one of conductor’s more vivid and educational asides of the show.

On his four-string electric bass, Wells provided plenty of low-end support, either with a staccato/Jaco Pastorius funk technique or in laid-back style of MG’s/Blues Brothers veteran Donald “Duck” Dunn. The rhythm section got very funky on an uptempo rendition of Herbie Hancock’s complicated “Watermelon Man.” The brass and sax sections nailed every tricky turnaround and time change, accenting over the syncopated patterns Wells and Wiltrout laid down.

Singleton grabbed his trumpet for a mellow take on “Since I Fell for You,” a pop/soul standard originally performed by Ella Johnson. Singleton noted that it was the singer’s brother, pianist and bandleader Buddy Johnson (a native of Darlington, S.C.) who originally composed the piece. They followed up with an entirely instrumental arrangement of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” which showcased one of many original arrangements of the set.

Suárez joined the band for a few numbers, kicking off with a wispy, waltzy version of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and an achingly slow-paced reworking of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” a weeper written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and recorded by the Shirelles. The duet between Suárez and Singleton on “You’re All I Need to Get By” by Ashford and Simpson provided another vocal highlight.

The band revved up on a high-energy Stevie Wonder medley. Introducing the suite, Singleton raved about Wonder’s songwriting skill, calling him a musical genius, and he even offered an amusing impression of Wonder as “Little Stevie” Wonder, singing the call-and-response of “Fingertips” in a terrific falsetto. The medley covered “Isn’t She Lovely,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” and an exciting rendition on “Sir Duke.” They concluded the show with a amusing hokey arrangement of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” By this closing number, several couples were dancing in the aisles.

A quick encore offered a sneak preview of the CJO’s of “Localopus” program coming up in May: a dynamic fanfare from Singleton’s original piece, “Rising Tide.” The orchestra plowed through the syncopated rhythms and wild melodies with confidence.