Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band Smolders at Smoke
Not to disrespect everything that pianist Orrin Evans has done with smaller combos, whether as a bandleader or with tenor sax titan JD Allen, but his greatest moments so far could well be with his Captain Black Big Band. Over the past couple of years, that mighty group has earned a reputation as arguably the hottest straight-ahead oldschool postbop big band playing original material anywhere in town. So it made sense that their debut album would be a concert recording. But the the album release show for their sophomore release, Mother’s Touch, last night at Smoke uptown, brought into focus a considerably different side of the band, as elegant, sophisticated and in the moment as it is towering and lush.
Their new stuff has as just much in common with the lustrous colors and cinematic swells and ebbs of Maria Schneider’s best work as it does with Ellington at his most boisterous and regally emphatic. As Evans alluded with a wry shrug, running a big band is an enormous task pushed to extremes by its members’ changing itineraries. Finding his lead trumpeter unable to make the gig, Evans snagged John Raymond for the job, and Raymond played like he’d jumped at the chance of a lifetime, soaring and bobbing and weaving and trading bars animatedly with the high-powered sax section at the front of the stage. Likewise, baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian’s long, lurid, red-neon solo was another of the first set’s many highlights, midway through the subtly Cuban-tinged Gianluca Renzi composition Here’s the Captain. This fourteen-piece edition of the band used that number to close it down, singing warmly casual aah-aahs together as they wound it out on a warmly triumphant note.
The new album’s title track is a two-parter, and it’s essentially a couple of long intros with tantalizingly short solos for piano and tenor sax. On album, the two are separated; in concert, Evans did the logical thing by playing them back-to-back and stretching them out a little, letting his own precise, glimmeringly lyrical phrases linger up to an animated, breathlessly clustering, stairstepping tenor sax solo (the club was pretty packed; from the very back of the bar, it was hard to see who was playing what). The rest of the set was a roller-coaster ride punctuated by express-train bursts from the brass, incisively lyrical passages for just piano, bass and drums, and frequent artful, animated pairings of brass and reeds over some fantastically subtle drumming, especially considering the heft and bulk of this band – was that Anwar Marshall having a great time hitting the clave and all kinds of implications of it? This is what happens when you show up late for the Captain, a powerful reminder why the guy’s so popular.