SIX MUSICIANS, ONE GROOVE

BY JACK MCCRAY
Of The Post and Courier Staff
Saxophonist Mark Sterbank is in a lot of ways the quintessential jazz musician. He approaches the American art form as just that, art that entertains. Prominent players in the Lowcountry he’s one of them typically are very good at crafting this art, and they know how to please an audience. Because they’ve played around the world with some of the best, they’re musically on top of the their technical game, also.
Another characteristic the members of this coterie have in common is connections with colleges. Sterbank, from Ohio, is an instrumental artist-in-residence at Charleston Southern University, where he also directs the school’s jazz ensembles and its summer jazz camp.
Monday at 8 p.m., the university’s Horton School of Music will present Sterbank leading a sextet of friends in a concert at Lightsey Chapel Auditorium. The performance is free and open to the public.
“This is an independent project of my own doing,” Sterbank said last week. “The last time I did a concert was 1999. I’m using it as a vehicle to get some of my own compositions performed.” Playing standards is one thing, but original music can be challenging. Sterbank, who also until recently played tenor in the popular band Brazil, has assembled an ensemble that will be up to the task.
Tommy Gill will play piano, Herman Burney Jr. will be the bassist, while trumpeter Charlton Singleton and drummer Quentin Baxter round out the lineup.
“We have a connection. We seem to connect personally and musically,” Sterbank said of his mates. “When we’re playing together, there’s a confidence. There’s chemistry. We all get along really well. We seem to be musically compatible. Everyone’s ideas are supported.”
They’re all artistic subversives, too, and sometimes surprise each other, but they never lose the groove.
Sterbank has invited the other players to offer their compositions for the show Monday.
“The last time we played together was Indigo Jazz,” Sterbank said of a September concert at the Sottile Theatre that, by all accounts, was a candidate for the best jazz event of the year.
Sterbank invited a special guest, trombonist Fred Wesley, the famed leader of some of James Brown’s best bands, to add a voice Friday that will only further texturize an already nuanced group. The brass could give a big band feel.
Sterbank has used Wesleyin his camps. He said of impromptu performances after camp last summer, “We had a session everyday, and he seemed to fit that chemistry. He’s such a great player. I feel really inspired by his meekness. The first time we played together was for a wedding down at Hilton Head. He didn’t introduce himself as the great Fred Wesley, or anything like that.
“It didn’t occur to me who he was, other than he sounded like J.J. Johnson. He had no pretense about playing a wedding gig with a somewhat unknown like me.”
Wesley took to Sterbank also. In a telephone interview last week while on the road in New Orleans, Wesley said of his jazz leanings, “I grew up wanting to be a great jazz trombone player, like J.J. Johnson or Curtis Fuller. In my early days I grew up studying jazz. But in order to get out of Mobile, Ala., I felt it necessary to take a gig with Ike and Tina (Turner), James Brown, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, people like that, and one thing led to another. I’ve had a great career and a good time. James Brown made me famous.”
Why, then, a concert at a church school in a relatively small market with a casual friend he met working a wedding? “Mark loves what he’s doing. He does a great job,” Wesley said. “I really admire teachers, especially someone like Mark, who takes the time to really work with their students.”
Sterbank said just getting the band together is enough reason to have a concert, but his desire to compose drives his need to hear his work. He links performance with writing and arranging. “I guess I can better express myself in my own compositions.”
Jazz musicians are always trying to get better, but Sterbank is fundamentally sound. He studied under Ellis Marsalis in Virginia and in New Orleans, and has played with his sons, Branford and Delfeayo Marsalis. He can be seen and heard with the Harry Connick, Jr. Orchestra on the video “Swingin’ Out Live.” He has performed with Eartha Kitt and the Temptations. In 1990, he led a band that included drummer Brian Blade at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
He came to Charleston in 1997 following a four-year stint working in the music ministry of the Times Square Church in New York City as an arranger, composer, and saxophonist.
Sterbank, who occasionally performs with the Charleston Symphony, holds a master’s degree in music from the University of New Orleans where he studied with saxophonist Victor Goines, current head of the Julliard School jazz program.