It was last October that I had the chance to catch Orrin Evans and his Captain Black Big Band. The venue was NYC’s famed Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club, and the occasion the birthday centennial of jazz’s greatest space case, Sun Ra. I’d known Evans from his flurry of small group releases over the past few years, particularly his wonderfully adaptive and melodic touch at the piano. Those records, which mostly kept to a straightforward bop sound, in no way prepared me for the Captain Black Big Band of this set. Donned in a dashiki while leading his men to the stage, procession-style, with a conch shell, Evans and his 16-piece band summoned the spirit of the Arkestra with eerie precision, from the spontaneous mid-song exclamations (“Jupiter! Venus! Mars!”) to the freewheeling, slightly off-the-rails execution of the arrangements. I knew from the CBBB’s eponymous debut that the orchestra was versatile, but the show left me with the distinct impression that these guys could do anything.
And now Evans and Captain Black are back with Mother’s Touch, the band’s first studio recording and a sizable leap in scope and sound. Though nothing touches the freewheeling experimentation of those Sun Ra tribute shows, Evans and crew show off their versatility in less obvious ways, utilizing a set of mostly original material that subtly expand on the framework of traditional big band jazz. More than anything, Touch displays the incredible range as a composer and arranger Evans has harnessed, even over the three years since the CBBB’s eponymous debut.
Not that Evans is particularly interested in being the star of the show. As on Captain Black’s debut, his piano mostly offers a support role for his cast of talented soloists including Marcus Strickland, Conrad Herwig and Duane Eubanks. Evans own composition “Dita” is about only place where the pianist really spaces out, laying down a wonderfully pensive interlude that nicely cools the otherwise hard-hitting record. And really it’s those hard-hitting tracks that make Touch worth the price of admission, particularly set highlights including a shapeshifting take on Wayne Shorter’s “Water Babies” and the wonderfully executed mini-suite “Prayer for Columbine.”
Befitting its home on Positone, a label which has always skewed towards a specific brand of retro-hip acoustic bop, Touch mostly avoids the more modern big-band touches of fellow big-band arranger/composers such as Darcy James Argue or Maria Schneider. Where Evans and his Captain Black Band keep things fresh lies in their attention to tenants of old-school big band: tight arrangements, killer soloists and an ever-vigilant ear for melody and swing. Compared to the Sun Ra feature, this is certainly no interstellar adventure in terms of adventurous. But Touch comes nowhere short of dispelling his reputation as one of jazz’s most dexterous and gifted players.