Pianist Orrin Evans is doing something special in the Philadelphia area with the release of Captain Black’s Big Band, a 7-track release from an eighteen-member group of the same name. Led by Evans, the album is a humble suggestion that a once forceful sound reclaim its rightful place on the world stage, respectful of all traditions; those that created it and those that came from it. The Captain Black Big Band is an exercise in how to combat the idea that music needs to be saved. That musical tradition needs to be preserved and taught to younger generations is undoubtedly true. Music produced by passionate musicians, however, will always come out swinging hard enough to save itself. Such is the case with this project.
Opening with what sounds like a phrase from Michael Jackson’s timeless dance classic and the inspiration for recent dance flash mobs, “Thriller,” The Captain Black Big Band wastes no time in the kitchen. They are cooking immediately as “The Art of War” takes stage first. Over 30-deep, the band’s personnel reads like a who’s who of working musicians, and sounds equally as impressive across the space of their self-titled debut release. This is a big band arguably full of bandleaders in their own right, which makes the title of “Here’s The Captain” even more fitting for Evans’ second track. The band plays with the admirable sort of cool born of machismo and the lilting bop left in the strolls of aged soul brothers. This is a song for avenues, corners, and car rides in long Cadillacs; a noise as smooth as it is joyful.
What you are witnessing with The Captain Black Big Band is a group of musicians emulsifying a range of skill, experience, and sound to create what is one of the most progressive sounds of late; progressive not because of a particular moment of conspicuous ingenuity or some easily discernible avant-garde approach, unless you consider the audacity to embrace big band music at this point novel enough to come off as exactly that. The Captain Black Big Band succeeds at pushing the limitations of the very distinct tradition of sound from which it is born, because it preserves the elements of classic big band music in a brand new way. Instead of shunning everything except the mold, Evans opts to break it and meld that nostalgia laden style of playing with the sensibilities of Big Band era rebels who usually struck out at tender ages to form the more memorable trios, quartets, and other small experimental groups.
These musicians grew to be the same people responsible for the kind of jazz that aging Big Band and Dixie Land veterans found time to publicly disdain on occasion. They were the change makers of their time and this is the extension of that tradition in real time. This manifestation of the classic jazz ensemble combines players spanning several eras into the rising class of the present-day, fostering an artistic environment where mentoring is as possible as outright innovation at nothing more than the behest of musical exchange. Even better, this is Big Band for all of the people who have ever said they hated it. Orrin Evans and his fellow band mates must smile incessantly at the crowds they are able to command, pleasing listeners in search of that classic Big Band sound as easily as they are able to impress lovers of more experimental sound and harder hitting rhythmic sensibilities.
“Inheritance” continues with an awesome display of percussion imbued by a massive horn section. The poignancy of the track is as evident in the phrasing of the iconic Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” as it is when the horns withdraw to allow piano, drum, and bass to showcase a robust gyrating skeletal rhythm. “Captain Black” is a lesson in proper Big Band Swing. It is a composition Duke Ellington and Count Basie would be proud of as much as it is a piece student ensembles will be clamoring to learn if they are truly interested in Big Band arrangements suited to the amalgam of ideas and sounds informing today’s emerging jazz artists and popular compositions.
“Easy Now” begins more ominous than saccharine, but melts into a tempo that sounds like something very close to what Texas’ Chopped and Screwed music would sound like performed live. A slow drag and a funeral dirge fell in love and this is what they made. The solo trumpet’s phrasing of the velvet draped classic, “When I Fall In Love,” is what places the entire song into a hammock, swaddled in the repetitious comfort of a righteously dense bass line, and rocks the groove to its core. If Big Band never had a chance to show a little leg during it’s heyday, this has changed all of that. Ending with “Jena 6,” Evans performs a splintered solo for the first several bars before a collection of movements, frenetic and as emotionally vulnerable as Evans’ solo, begin. Fraught with the pain and struggle likely experienced by the real life Jena 6, the saxophone solo ending the piece claws its way out of the bell with reckless abandon; what one might imagine the sound of hope in the midst of hopelessness to be. Like the closing track, The Captain Black Big Band is a beacon of possibility and ambassador of collective artistry in a musical climate begging for just that.
Words by Karas Lamb