Hymns & Spirituals: Sacred music to get jazz interpretations

The Post and Courier
Mark Sterbank believes there’s a renewed interest in things jazz and spiritual.
The Charleston Southern University instrumental artist-in-residence bases this, in part, on the fact that he and his colleagues are set to put on their fourth consecutive edition of Hymns & Spirituals, a concert of jazz interpretations of sacred music.
As he mused on the sacred jazz scene in a recent interview, Sterbank, a veteran player, observed that there is an upswing in opportunities in the Lowcountry to hear that kind of music. “Jazz vespers is something that’s returning to popularity,” he said. “There’s the vespers at Circular (Congregational Church), and we played one (vespers) during Piccolo (Spoleto Festival) last year.” That program was held at First Baptist Church.
Calvary Episcopal Church offered a jazz vespers Sept. 30. It was part of its 160th anniversary that began Feb. 4 with a jazz Mass.
Jazz vespers is an afternoon or evening informal service built around Scripture and jazz music.
East Cooper Baptist Church has hosted sacred swing music. After Sterbank’s group made a joyful noise unto the Lord at East Cooper Baptist at Thanksgiving 2006, Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill and a well-traveled jazz fan, remarked that it was like nothing he had ever seen or heard.
Circular’s service is long-standing and is scheduled regularly for the second Sunday of the month at 6 p.m.
At 3 p.m. Jan. 27, Sterbank’s ensemble, the Mark Sterbank Jazz Group, featuring Fred Wesley, will perform at Lightsey Chapel on the CSU campus. The program will include “It is Well With My Soul,” “Oh, Happy Day,” “Since I Laid My Burdens Down” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
Trumpeter Charlton Singleton, known for his arrangements, is working on “Lord I Want to be a Christian,” Sterbank said. Trombonist Wesley, former James Brown band leader, will contribute arrangements, as will Sterbank, who plays saxophone.
Other players are Tommy Gill on piano, Quentin Baxter on drums and Herman Burney Jr. on bass.
Sterbank said favorites from previous concerts also will be featured. Listen out for “In the Garden,” “Wade in the Water” and “Speak to My Heart,” a song made popular by contemporary gospel singer Donnie McClurkin.
“We’re looking forward to an afternoon of enthusiastic swing in celebration of familiar and beloved gospel favorites,” Sterbank said.
A major reason this band can take on such a varied repertoire is the chemistry it has developed over the years playing together. Burney is traveling from Washington, D.C., for the concert. Wesley, a Mobile, Ala., native, is coming from Manning, where he lives.
“It feels like a family,” Sterbank said. “Everyone has a love for one another and the music. The excitement of seeing each other and playing together is fantastic. I only see Fred (Wesley) once or twice a year and Herman (Burney) not as much as that; but we have a very close bond.”
All the band members are believers who grew up in church.
Sterbank said one of the reasons they work together so well is the fact that they all value what they believe in and what they do for a living.
The bond is strong and has a sense of purpose. “It’s about combining faith and vocation,” Sterbank said, “and just using the vehicle of jazz for the expression of the music that’s really American traditional music, in a sense.”
The band has fun and experiences personal and professional fulfillment.
“If you wonder why I do it, it’s the joy of playing,” Sterbank said. “When the group gets together, it’s just a celebration of the musical gifts we have and a celebration of the music.”