Versatile jazz heavies will play spirituals

Of The Post and Courier Staff
Jazz has always been connected to spirituality. It sometimes has an otherworldly feel. Some players — listeners, as well — seem at times entranced, its beauty taking them someplace else.
Some of jazz’s great players are closely associated with organized religions, too. The late South Carolina pioneer Dizzy Gillespie was a devout Bahai believer, while the legendary Art Blakey and many of his Jazz Messengers were followers of the Muslim faith. Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are practicing Buddhists.
Trombone great Wycliffe Gordon, a testifying Christian, opened his concert at last year’s Spoleto Festival USA Wachovia Jazz Series with “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Here and now in the Lowcountry, in fact on Sunday, a sextet of some of the finest players in the area will offer a program of hymns and spirituals prepared just for this performance. Lightsey Chapel Auditorium on the campus of Charleston Southern University will host the Mark Sterbank Jazz Group with special guest Fred Wesley.
The occasion is the Horton School of Music Sunday Concert Series. The concert will feature original arrangements by members of the group: Wesley on trombone, trumpeter Charlton Singleton, Tommy Gill on piano, Herman Burney Jr. on bass, drummer Quentin Baxter, and Sterbank on saxophone.
Wesley, an ardent jazz player from Mobile, Ala., who now lives in South Carolina, attained fame from his longtime work with James Brown and leading his own funk groups.
Sterbank, instrumental artist-in-residence at Horton, said in a recent telephone interview, “I invited everybody to do some arrangements, but I will do the bulk of them.” Songs planned for Sunday include “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Amazing Grace,” “Wade in the Water” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
These musicians have played together in various configurations many times over the years, so there’s plenty of chemistry to apply to Sunday’s challenge. Wesley said following last year’s concert how much he enjoyed playing with this group. He’s also done student camps with Sterbank. He said the technical proficiency and sense of swing his colleagues have motivate him.
“These guys in Charleston not only play changes, they play changes on the changes,” Wesley remarked last March, describing the intricacy of the improvisation he encounters when he comes here. Sterbank 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 Juilliard School jazz program. “I had the opportunity last year, or year before last, to play (religious music) with Herman,” Sterbank said. “He had me come up and play with him in his church in Salisbury (N.C.). We played jazz arrangements. When I was in the music ministry at Times Square Church, we had jazz arrangements of hymns. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. When I talked to Herman about being involved and talked to the others, everybody was interested and excited.”
When this band gets excited, there’s usually good music.