BY JACK MCCRAY
Special to The Post and Courier
Saxophonist Mark Sterbank has grown his concept of sacred jazz music into a popular brand step by step over the past six years, inspiring and entertaining concertgoers with his Hymns & Spirituals.
That’s the banner under which the Mark Sterbank Jazz Group performs modern jazz interpretations of church evergreens.
Although he was referring to secular music when he coined the phrase, Louis Armstrong would have called what Sterbank’s band plays, “some of them good ol’ good ones.”
The ensemble performs again Jan. 16 at 3 p.m. in the Lightsey Chapel Auditorium at Charleston Southern University. It’s billed as the 7th Annual Hymns & Spirituals Concert.
I saw the very first one and several of them since. It’s a blast. In fact, they just keep getting better.
One of the reasons is that the personnel, who had played together in other configurations, has remained the same, coalescing in musical thought, word and deed.
Sterbank’s bandmates are Fred Wesley, trombone; Charlton Singleton, trumpet; Tommy Gill, piano; Herman Burney Jr., bass; and Quentin Baxter, drums.
Some of the program planned for the upcoming concert has been played before and are back by popular demand. Others, such as “We Shall Overcome,” are new renditions.
The band is set to perform “This Little Light of Mine,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Amazing Grace,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “Let Us Break Bread,” “Joshua Fit De Battle” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” among others.
Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 seniors and students and free for CSU students and children 12 and under. Contact the CSU music department at 863-7966.
The experience of listening to this band is so transcendent, it even works outside the sanctuary. It played to a sold-out house at McCrady’s last spring for its turn as Jazz Artists of Charleston’s annual Holy City Homecomin’ event. It has performed at East Cooper Baptist Church and is getting requests to play regionally.
The house rocked as it would in a concert hall or a church. The energy created overrode any perceived boundaries imposed by a venue.
It’s the best of both Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Every time I’ve heard the band, folks leave feeling better, on many levels, than when they came in. You get the best of top-quality art and a nonsectarian religious experience, all rolled into one.
A feeling that shines through, too, is the resonance that comes from how the band members live their lives and practice their craft. Believers all, they’re connected to a presence larger than them individually and as a group.
What you hear is a result of their being in touch with that force, one in which they have a deep and abiding faith that ties them to what they believe is the source of all beauty.
There are collegial bonds that tie these guys together, too. Not only are they all hugely talented, they respect themselves and each other professionally. And whatever their undertaking, they put out the best product they can.
Some time after the concert, they’re going into the studio to make another record. They did a terrific one, “Hymns & Spirituals,” last year. It’s available at CDBaby.com, DigStation, and iTunes. With another year under their belt, this one should be even better.
The band is just the right size for what Sterbank is trying to do. You get a full, lush sound with five players, and at the same time, it’s not so many people that they get in each other’s way. Everyone’s artistic abilities have room to come through. And that is reinforced by how well they know each other musically from the experience of playing together for more than 10 years.
The ensemble’s sound seems to float like a cloud. You end up enveloped by their sound, not run over or knocked down by it. It takes you over. And that’s OK. It’s warm and welcoming.
The way I know Sterbank, this project and its concept come out of his personality. He and his wife, Leah, are two of the nicest, most hip, positive people you’ll ever want to meet.
Just like this band.
He told me New Year’s Eve a biblical guiding principle for his project is taken from Ephesians 5:19,20: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The programmatic inspiration for this year’s concert comes from the band having been invited to play Jan. 19 at 11 a.m. at CSU as part of a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., an ardent jazz fan who gave an address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival.
He closed it with, “For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”
CSU made a fine choice asking Sterbank to bring his band. Not knowing of King’s speech, here’s what he told me that Friday of his take on jazz, spirituality and human equality:
” ‘Hymns & Spirituals’ is relevant because the tradition of jazz and hymns and spirituals both reach out across cultural divisions and appeal to people from many cultures. There is a connection that is made with people through both traditions.
“I feel that the combining the two unites the joy, exuberance and beauty of jazz music with the hope, redemption and love found in hymns and spirituals. It resonates across age divisions as well. I’ve seen all ages at our events. It is an honor to present this program again this year and continue the vision of uniting my passion and faith through music.”