Q&A: 9th annual ‘Hymns & Spirituals’ show presented at CSU

by Adam Parker, The Post and Courier
Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2013 12:01 a.m.

The nice thing about jazz is you can’t really pin it down. The genre’s range is large, and because jazz is a constantly transformative and expressive kind of music, it is especially good at accommodating a variety of styles.

For nine years, sax player Mark Sterbank has been organizing a special jazz set called “Hymns & Spirituals,” which is presented at an annual concert hosted by Charleston Southern University, where he teaches.

His band, which features Quentin Baxter on drums, Charlton Singleton on trumpet, Fred Wesley on trombone, Tommy Gill on piano, and Herman Burney Jr. on bass, also sometimes takes the show downtown, on the road or into the recording studio.
“Hymns & Spirituals” is about much more than adding improvisory swing and kick to tradition tunes; it’s a meaningful experience for players and listeners alike.
In anticipation of today’s 3 p.m. concert, The Post and Courier asks Sterbank about his background, inspiration and musical journey.

Q: How did you get into music-making in the first place? Did you start as a kid? And were reeds always your main thing?
A: I started the saxophone at age 9 after several frustrating early years of piano lessons. My parents had allowed me to quit piano if I took up another instrument.
My uncle had been a saxophonist in high school and had the instruments, so I chose the saxophone. Funny thing was, I confused the image of an accordion with the word saxophone as another uncle had shown me an accordion that I thought was pretty cool.
When the saxophone arrived, I said, “Oh, OK, I’ll play this.” I’ve played saxophone ever since and started flute and clarinet in high school.

Q: You teach at Charleston Southern — saxophone lessons? Any other classes? What do you like best about teaching?
A: At CSU I teach jazz band, jazz combo, saxophone studio, woodwind techniques, jazz and commercial music theory, jazz improvisation and arranging for worship leaders.
I have also previously taught a performance class and music appreciation. What I like best about teaching is being able to help students discover information that changes their musical paradigm.
Whether through introducing them to new music or artists or techniques and practices, it is the most gratifying to make a positive difference in someone’s learning experience.

Q: Your Christian faith is an important part of your life, right? What’s the connection between that and your musical experiences, generally speaking?
A: Yes, my faith is definitely a very important part of my life. The connection between my faith and my musical experiences is my purpose in life. I’m able to realize the calling to help others, to be a blessing, to share the love of Christ and to give glory to the Lord through the pursuit of musical excellence.

Q: What first sparked the idea for the “Hymns & Spirituals” program, and how has it unfolded during these last nine years? Is it a CSU event, or just hosted there?
A: CSU’s Horton School of Music has been the host for the program since its beginning in 2005. At that time, I was an artist in residence and this was a performance project that integrated my faith and vocation.
Over the last nine years, it has become more than just a project as we’ve presented “Hymns & Spirituals” 16 or 17 times playing also at churches, the JAC (Jazz Artists of Charleston) and Piccolo Spoleto Jazz Series and even for the Toni Morrison convention. We’ve recorded two CDs and plan to pursue performance opportunities in other cities in addition to our annual concert.

Q: I’ve noticed that playing this set generates a somewhat unique vibe on stage and in the audience. The music is familiar, but presented in a wonderfully soulful and swinging way that excites listeners. Tell me about the ensemble performing experience and the way these particular tunes affect the band.
A: As you say, there is a unique exhilaration when we play that seems to transcend just the chemistry between the musicians. There is a wonderful excitement that occurs that defies explanation. It’s really a blessing to everybody.

Q: Finally, you have been spending a lot of time playing at the recently opened jazz listening room, The Mezz, and in the Charleston Jazz Orchestra. In both the small-ensemble and big band formats, your playing seems to have matured. You are adventurous in your solos. And you are writing more arrangements and original tunes. Can you summarize your career trajectory? Where have you come from, and where do you think you are going?
A: I’ve come from a diverse music experience including classical, jazz, Motown, R&B, Broadway-style shows, gospel, and Christian music.
Through the years, I’ve strived for the image my teacher held up of the journeyman musician, being ready for whatever the job calls for. Now, my career is becoming more focused as I concentrate more of my energy on my own compositions and playing.
I have the wonderful opportunity to explore and reach new levels of expression at the Mezz and with CJO.
Currently, I am planning an album of original music to be completed in the next year and hope to present and perform as much as possible.