While the jazz events of Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto have earned attention and praise in the last few weeks, a locally based independent musical gathering has been swingin' to its own jazzy beat, too. In the middle of all the Spoleto commotion, the Upstairs at McCrady's jazz series has already presented great talents and drawn big crowds. Presented by the Jazz Artists of Charleston — a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting, supporting, and developing the jazz culture of Charleston — the Upstairs at McCrady's series is equally worthy of praise and consideration.
"As a whole, we're not just trying to build something for the festival season," says JAC president Leah Suárez, a musician and vocalist herself. "We've got a community here that we want to take care of and present, year-round. We've tried to entice older and younger groups, and we're so happy with the diversity of the audiences."
Last year, the JAC worked with Piccolo Spoleto to secure the elegant Long Room on the second floor at McCrady's and present a 13-night run. This year, the JAC booked and promoted things independently of Piccolo Spoleto. The series kicked off at McCrady's on May 22, and the shows continue through June 10.
"We've kind of been hot, cold, and lukewarm with the city, as far as how the box office and production works," says Suárez. "Every year, there's been some sort of difference. It's beneficial for us to think about our goals and enjoy the spirit of what we do. It's wonderful to be independent, but it's a challenge, too. When people pick up a Piccolo program, there's not a calendar listing there for us, so it kind of hinders us. But there is something to be said for having an underground, fringe feel about it."
The 16-night run offers some of the top jazz players and singers in the local scene, as well as several special visiting acts.
"We took some chances on presenting some visiting acts, and we took some chances on some new local acts who are doing all-original sets," says Suárez.
Last week, on May 31, the fourth annual Holy City Homecomin' ventured beyond the realms of jazz by putting a tag-team of six local songwriters from the indie scene on the mic with a jazzy backing trio. It worked well.
Members of Charleston's Shrimp Records team took turns singing jazz and pop standards and deep cuts. Host Nathan Koci played piano, backed by Kevin Hamilton on upright bass and Ron Wiltrout on the drum kit. They all rose to the occasion.
"It was an interesting concept, and it was the perfect setting as the Holy City Homecomin' concert," says Suárez.
From his piano, Koci introduced each singer. He referred to the evening as "a chance to bring people I love from outside the jazz world inside the situation." Lindsay Holler leaned into the mic stand, eyes closed, crooning "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and belting it out on a spooky rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused." Cary Ann Hearst delivered sassy renditions of "Like Someone in Love" and "Isn't It Romantic." Joel Hamilton wowed the audience with a breathy, closed-eyes versions of Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" and obscure Ray Noble and Jeff Buckley tunes. Michael Flynn jumped on the piano and sang a bluesy cover of Tom Waits' "Train Song." Bill Carson put some pepper on an upbeat take of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." Hearst's hubby Michael Trent was cool and shruggy on his versions of Gershwin's "But Not for Me" and Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You."
New York City-based keyboardist Michael Bellar's As-Is Ensemble delivered stunning sets on Sat. June 4. I caught the lightly-attended 7 p.m. show and was knocked out by the musical versatility of the trio — and the level of musicianship on display. Bellar switched from piano to a funky-sounding Wurlitzer, an accordion, and a Nord organ/synth, while Rob Jost handled the upright bass with sturdy technique and Brad Wentworth nearly ignited his small drum kit with his blazing chops and a collection of mallets, sticks, and brushes.
"We're not used to being treated this good," Bellar joked to the crowd after McCray's introduction. It the first a several amusing comments of the set. The trio rendered a few cleverly twisted reworkings of Paul McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby" and a Ben Folds cut. They offered a lot of soon-to-be-recorded originals, too — many of which leaned on bluesy riffs, funky grooves in 4/4, and Latin rhythms.
This week's lineup at McCrady's features sax players Robert Lewis and Mark Sterbank with Tenor Madness on Mon. June 6, and singer/guitarist Duda Lucena's quartet on Tues. June 7. The brassy Charlton Singleton Sextet is set to play on Wed. June 8, and a free-wheelin' local combo called Gregory/Lewis/Wiltrout/Wolf is on for Thurs. June 9.
If last week's Holy City Homecomin' was an odd treat, this week's Upstairs at McCrady's finale on Fri. June 10, billed as the Charleston All-Stars, should be a top highlight. In 2009, the CJO performed a Holy City Homecomin' gig at the Charleston Music Hall with veteran musician and composer Bob Belden at the conductor's stand. A Goose Creek native celebrated for his knack for transforming non-jazz material into jazz, Belden returns with trumpeter Tim Hagans and Animation on an unconventional piece titled Asiento: a Re-Imagination of Bitches Brew. Belden and the troupe will mix bits of hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, and fusion into their reworking of the landmark 1969 Miles Davis release Bitches Brew. The show is already sold out.
"That will be an exciting show," says Suárez. "We've been warning people, though. Bob and the band will be doing Bitches Brew in a way that might surprise some people."
Advance tickets to all Upstairs at McCrady's events are available through the JAC box office. Call (843) 641-0011 or visit thejac.org for more info.