Well, now I’m becoming a huge fan of jazz pianist Orrin Evans. Why wasn’t I already? I mean, the guy has been playing with everybody and their moms since he burst on the scene 20 years ago. He recorded as a leader in 1994 when he was merely 18 years old, exhibiting even then a powerful grammar of hard bop, soul, daring, and gospel groove. Man, the guy was born in Jersey and raised in Philly — which is pretty much the lineage of jazz royalty — and I’ve seen him rip up rooms with the Mingus Big Band.
But sometimes you just have to let a musician grow on you until that day arrives when you hear him anew. Which has happened to me with Evans’ latest recording with his Captain Black Big Band, Mother’s Touch. The band is a pick-up group of brilliant New York and Philly jazz players that decidedly does not sound like a pick-up band. It recorded a live disc in 2011. Now, the band is back with a studio recording done shortly after those live dates in 2011: nine tunes, six by Evans.
It is compulsively cool and driving: smart, complex, hip, in the pocket, fully alive with modern energy.
Here’s what you get with this modern big band: five trumpets (including Duane Eubanks), seven reed players (Marcus Strickland, Stacy Dillard, and Tim Green among them), five trombones (including Conrad Herwig) and a solid rhythm section. But for all its size, the Captain Black Big Band has several modes beyond roaring. The down-home opener, “In My Soul”, is a funky 6/8 tune that mixes blues cry and wistfulness. The band sounds loose and slick in reading the moving theme before giving way to Evans’ easygoing solo. This is the kind of glossy stroll in the park you might have heard from the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band a couple of decades ago, and the tenor solo by Strickland is marvelous.
The band also does a great job with more exotic material. “Explain It to Me” uses a complex rhythm that shifts often: three bars of 7/8 set over a Latin groove followed by a bar of 8/8, which then switches into driving Latin eighth notes that can also convert to fast 4/4 swing or a cool section where the groove is suspended. “Tickle” is a flying and complex chart that mixes elaborate runs by the reed section with a stabbing figure, leading to a solo section that uses an implied rhythm before giving way to uptempo swing. “Maestra”, a tune by bassist Eric Revis, runs on a funky bass line and drum groove that sits beneath a slow-developing arrangement for brass and saxophones. There is also a very clever arrangement by trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt of Wayne Shorter’s Miles-era song “Water Babies”, which uses a chattering call-and-response pattern that tests the band’s skill to the max.
All the arrangements on Mother’s Touch expertly use a range of colors and subtleties. The “Water Babies” arrangement trades in chirping high reeds and the rich bottom of buzzing trombones, particularly beneath the emotional Dillard tenor solo. “Dita (for Karyn Warren)” is a lovely tone poem that uses flutes, clarinet. bass clarinet, and various muted brasses to set the table for Evans’ gorgeous impressionism. Under Todd Bashore’s feeling-soaked alto sax solo, the arrangement (also by Bashore) is gentle and playful, developing a fantasia section of its own that gives each section of the band its say in the melody. The title track, “Mother’s Touch” is split into two short halves that are stated as rubato settings for a single, simple melodic motif, evoking Coltrane, with the colors of the whole bands bursting forth like rays of sun.
My favorite track is the last one, “Prayer for Colombine”, a long piece that combines mournful surges of horns with a hopping figure and compelling ostinato bass part that makes things thrilling as much as they are blue. The solos on this song are excellent: Herwig’s trombone and Mark Allen on baritone sax. At the end, Tim Green’s alto and Dillard’s tenor engage in a marvelous duel that begins with the groove, develops into a straight-ahead walking swing, and then finally the rest of the band melts away and it’s just those two voices in conversation without accompaniment.
Although the first track gives the Captain Black Big Band a heavy dose of Evans’ piano, it’s notable that this is a band animated more by a sense of collective purpose and shared vision that a vehicle for one player. The Evans originals are strong, but the arrangements were written by many others. Oddly, the recording was made almost three years ago. Whatever excuse there needs to be to get this group back together is welcome. 2011 was a fine year for the band, even if this set didn’t emerge right away. In the meantime Orrin Evans is still everywhere, playing up a storm.
Now that I’m a convert, let’s get Orrin Evans all the attention he deserves. That’s to say: plenty.
– Will Layman