BY JACK MCCRAY
Of The Post and Courier Staff
The Mark Sterbank Jazz Group made a joyful noise unto the Lord last Sunday as it wound its way through 13 sacred selections and an encore that delighted some 300 people at Charleston Southern University’s Lightsey Chapel.
The music swung as hard as the cold wind blew outside that day. At the same time, the program was warm and inviting, offering familiar and not-so-familiar hymns and spirituals arranged by various members of the sextet gathered by Sterbank, instrumental artist-in-residence at CSU’s Horton School of Music.
Starting promptly, drummer Quentin Baxter walked to the front of the stage to announce, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone?”
He spoke other phrases and Bible quotes, rhythmically answering himself with a tambourine and invoking a musical response from the band’s frontline, with Sterbank on saxophone, Charlton Singleton on trumpet and trombonist Fred Wesley, a special guest of Sterbank’s widely known for his association with James Brown, his studio work and leading funk groups.
Baxter then lined verses from a hymn book with the whole band, ably rounded out by Tommy Gill on piano and Herman Burney Jr. on bass, responding with improvisational musical strains from tunes such as “Amazing Grace” and “Give Me That Old Time Religion.”
It was church right from the beginning.
As was the entire repertoire Sunday, the way the band chose to start strongly hinted at traditional Lowcountry praise practices.
The opening call-and-response moved from a one-clap rhythm, to two-clap, then three, then bursting forth with modernity as it imbued its old-school foundation with the jazz feels of blues, swing and bop.
An appreciative audience made up of students, jazz fans, seniors and musicians roared its approval at the end of the uninterrupted, 90-minute set.
Other offerings included “Jesus Loves Me,” a blues shuffle with Sterbank laconically soloing over an in-the-pocket groove established by the rhythm section, “Wade in the Water” and even a contemporary gospel tune, Donnie McClurkin’s “Speak to My Heart,” arranged by Wesley for the performance.
“Balm of Gilead” was beautifully rendered with Baxter using mallets and Burney lyrically bending notes the way Ron Carter does. “I’ll Fly Away” soared at a bebop pace with Gill sounding like Bud Powell and Max Roach invading Baxter’s soul as he rode the bass drum with one foot, the high hat cymbal with the other, the snare drum and tom-tom with one hand and the tambourine with the other.
The ensemble played with dynamism and balance.
All the songs were played with deep emotion and utter reverence.
Gill and Burney turned in a duet on “The Lord’s Prayer” that was absolutely stunning. Burney led with strong, even tones played legato with little or no vibrato, clear and effective in its simplicity.
Gill’s obbligatos floated above Burney’s lower register meanderings. Burney made the bass fiddle sound like a cello on this one.
All of these players demonstrated their long-held technical virtuosity.
Their collective work served to uplift. It’ll be hard for Sterbank to top this next year.
The next jazz program in the Horton School of Music Sunday Concert Series is a performance by the CSU Jazz Band and Jazz Combo, both led by Sterbank, on March 20 at 3 p.m. at Lightsey Chapel.
The series’ next program is Jan. 30 at 3 p.m. at Lightsey when Regina Helcher and Friends (CSU flute faculty) perform.