Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

April 29, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mighty Majestic Brilliance from Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band

Big band jazz is not the most lucrative style of music: after paying twenty guys for the gig, you’re lucky if there’s anything left over for you. But some of the most exciting composers in jazz persist in writing and recording large-ensemble pieces. Darcy James Argue is probably the most cutting-edge. Of all the purist, oldschool, blues-based big bands playing original material, pianist Orrin Evans‘ Captain Black Big Band is without a doubt the most powerful and entertaining. For those who don’t know his music, Evans is a vigorously cerebral tunesmith and one of this era’s most distinctive pianists: think of a young Kenny Barron with more stylistically diverse influences and you’re on the right track. Evans’ initial recording with this band was a roller-coaster ride through lively and often explosive, majestically blues-infused tunes. His new one, Mother’s Touch, is arguably even better, and has a broader emotional scope. Evans and this mighty crew play the album release show at Smoke jazz club uptown (Broadway between 105th and 106th) with sets at 7 and 9 PM on April 28. Get there early if you’re going (a seat a the bar is your best bet) because this will probably sell out.

The album’s slow, torchy first track, In My Soul, is amazing. It’s the most lavishly orchestrated oldschool soul song without words you’ll ever hear. Evans’ gentle, gospel-infused piano, Marcus Strickland’s searching tenor sax solo, and an artfully arranged conversation between groups of horns lead up to a joyously brass-fueled peak. By contrast, Explain It to Me is an enigmatic, pinpoint, Monk-ish latin groove, guest drummer Ralph Peterson doing a good impersonation of a salsa rhythm section on his big kit.

The album’s title track is a relatively brief two-parter: it’s basically an intro, guest pianist Zaccai Curtis spiraling around majestically on the first and then leapfrogging on the second over a dense wall of sound and Anwar Marshall’s tumbling drums.The best song on the album – and maybe the best single song that’s come over the transom here this year – is Dita. Throughout its long, impressionistic crescendos, elegant solo voices peeking in through the Gil Evans-like lustre and gracefully acrobatic outro, the pianist has a great time alluding to both the rhythm and the blues.

Tickle, written by Donald Edwards, works variations on a series of big, whirling riffs echoed by Stacy Dillard’s clustering tenor solo and then some wryly energetic call-and-response among the orchestra. An Eric Revis song, Maestra builds off a trickily rhythmic, circular riff underpinning a casually funky groove and a tersely jaunty Fabio Morgera trumpet solo. The band has a blast with the droll, bubbly bursts of Wayne Shorter’s Water Babies, a long trumpet solo giving voice to the most boisterous of the toddlers in the pool. The album ends with the epic Prayer for Columbine, an unexpectedly optimistic, cinematic theme grounded in unease – it has the feel of a longscale Quincy Jones soundtrack piece from the mid 60s. Pensive trombone over a similarly brooding vamp eventually gives way to a massive funk groove with a long, vividly animated conversation between aggravated baritone sax and a cooler-headed counterpart on tenor. It’s not always clear just who is soloing, but the whole thing is a sweeping, passionate performance from a big crew which also includes trumpeters Tanya Darby, Duane Eubanks, Tatum Greenblatt and Brian Kilpatrick; saxophonists Mark Allen, Doug Dehays, Stacy Dillard, Tim Green and Victor North, trombonists Dave Gibson, Conrad Herwig, Stafford Hunter, Andy Hunter and Brent White, with Luques Curtis on bass.

April 25, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Orrin Evans’ New Trio Album Is One of the Year’s Best

Pianist Orrin Evans has been on a creative rampage lately. Recorded at a single marathon session at a Brooklyn studio this past February, his latest album Flip the Script, a trio project with Ben Wolfe on bass and Donald Edwards behind the kit, does exactly that. It’s his most straightforward album under his own name (to distinguish his small-group work from his role as conductor/pianist with his mighty jazz orchestra the Captain Black Big Band.) To steal a phrase from the JD Allen fakebook (a guy Evans has worked with, memorably), this is jukebox jazz: roughly four-minute, terse, wickedly tuneful, relentlessly intense compositions. For lack of a better word, this is deep music, full of irony and gravitas but also wit. Evans’ work has always been cerebral: to say whether or not this is his most emotionally impactful recording depends on how much Captain Black makes you sweat.

Question, by bassist Eric Revis, opens the album with a relentless unease that will pervade much of what’s to come, the rhythm section walking furiously against an evil music-box riff from the piano: the way Evans shadows Wolfe as the bassist pulls away from the center and then returns is one of the album’s many high points and will have you reaching for the repeat button. The first Evans composition here, Clean House, works gravely bluesy modalities into a dark Philly soul melody: the trio’s simple, direct rhythmic rhythmic insistence on the third verse is a clinic in hard-hitting teamwork. With its apprehensive chromatics, the title track has echoes of Frank Carlberg, Edwards coloring it with counterintuitive accents and the occasional marauding, machinegunning phrase as much as he propels it, something he does throughout the album: fans of Elvin Jones or Rudy Royston will eat this up. The quietly imploring, spaciously Shostakovian minimalism of When makes quite a contrast: Evans’ coldly surreal, starlit moonscape could be Satoko Fujii.

A phantasmagorical blues, Big Small balances slyness against gravitas, Wolfe turning in a potently minimalist solo as he builds to quietly boomy chords against the drums, Evans offering hope of a resolution but then retracts it as the mysterioso ambience returns. The piano’s relentless interpolations build to an artful clave rumble by Edwards and then a false ending on a bracingly chromatic reinvention of Luther Vandross’ A Brand New Day, while TC’s Blues, a diptych, morphs from loungey swing to expansive, allusively shadowy modalities that give Edwards a platform to whirl and rumble on. They follow that with an unexpectedly brooding take on Someday My Prince Will Come, then go back to the originals with The Answer, a clever, considerably calmer response to the Revis tune

The album ends with The Sound of Philadelphia, Evans’ hometown. But this isn’t happy tourists gathered around a bicentennial Liberty Bell: it’s a vacant industrial lot in north Philly next to a diner that’s been closed for years and a house that may or may not have people in it. Evans strips Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s jovial Philly soul tune to the bone, slows it down, takes every bit of bounce out and adds a menacing turnaround. It’s a quietly crushing way to bring this powerful creation to a close. Count this among the half-dozen best jazz albums to come over the transom so far this year, another major contribution from the Posi-Tone label.

July 6, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The 25 Best Jazz Albums of 2011

If there’s one thing this page tries to avoid, it’s redundancy: if you’ve been here before, you’ve noticed that coverage here typically focuses on talent flying under the radar. That’s not to imply that the Marsalises, Vijay Iyers and Christian McBrides of the world aren’t valid artists, only that you probably already know about them. And there’s actually an album by a Marsalis (although not one who might immediately spring to mind) on this list.

Another thing to keep in mind is that even the most dedicated listener only has the opportunity to hear, at the most, a few hundred out of the thousands of jazz albums released every year. Then there’s the big can of worms that spills over with every attempt to rank them. How do you compare a big band with a stark bass-and-voice duo? How does a recording of sepulchral flute-and-percussion improvisations weigh up against a collection of intricate, politically fueled, narrative compositions? Isn’t all that just apples and oranges? Consider this a perhaps misguided stab at tackling all of the above, keeping in mind that the difference quality-wise between #1 and #25 here is infinitesimally small – all the albums here are worth your time.

Most years, trying to decide just which jazz album is the year’s best is a crapshoot. This year, however, there’s one that stands out over the rest of a very strong crop, and that’s the Curtis Brothers’ Completion of Proof. Written by pianist Zaccai Curtis as the Bush regime was finally coming to an end, it’s a towering, sometimes wrathful, cruelly sarcastic concept album that explores the effects of fascism and those who perpetrate it, from the school hall monitor to heads of state. As political art, it ranks with Mingus and Shostakovich for its insight and bleak, ironic wit: as music, it’s hard-hitting, ambitious but searingly melodic, as political music has to be. Drummer Ralph Peterson (who also put out a dynamite album of his own this year, Outer Reaches, a Larry Young tribute) gets special mention for propelling this monster: the rest of the cast includes Luques Curtis, Jimmy Greene, Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Pedrito Martinez.

JD Allen, who topped the charts here with I Am I Am in 2007, gets the #2 spot for VICTORY!, his elegant and equally hard-hitting trio sonata album with Gregg August and Rudy Royston. The tenor saxophonist’s laser-beam sense of melody, his majestic and fearlessly brooding, chromatically-charged themes, his artful use of his rhythm section and imaginative employment of duo arrangements have never been more impactful than they are here. There’s no other composer in jazz who’s ahead of this guy right now.

#3 goes to a group you may have never heard of, the self-titled debut by Beninghove’s Hangmen, who take Marc Ribot-style noir themes to all sorts of genuinely menacing places. Noir can become a cliche, but not with this band – veering from Mingus bustle to noisy, macabre surf rock, they breathe fresh air into every dark cinematic style you’ve ever heard. With Bryan Beninghove, Rick Parker, Eyal Maoz, Dane Johnson, Kellen Harrison and Shawn Baltazor.

4. Ran Blake and Dominique Eade – Whirlpool. To put the definitive noir pianist of our time anywhere other than #1 is hubris: at 76, he’s never been more counterintuitive or moodily interesting. Eade brings her equally restless chops to a mix of vocal standards, all of which they radically reinvent – and the best song here might be Eade’s original.

5. Ralph Bowen – Power Play. The tenor saxophonist is just as much about precision as he is power, but where he excels most is as a composer. Leading a quartet with Orrin Evans, Kenny Davis and Donald Edwards, his fiery, vividly uneasy melodicism was unsurpassed by anyone else this year.

6. Billy Bang Bill Cole. A 2009 concert performance with the late, great violinist/improviser – whom we sadly lost this year – inventing new elements with the noted multi-reedman. It’s essentially a series of tone poems, some rising with an astringent airiness, sometimes uncoiling with an unrestrained ferocity. There are some scary albums on this list: this is probably the scariest.

7. Delfeayo Marsalis – Suite Thunder. As with the Mingus Orchestra’s Live at Jazz Standard album last year, it probably isn’t even fair to include this album, which has the trombonist leading a big band that revisits the legendary Ellington suite with an A-list of players including but not limited to Branford Marsalis, Red Atkins, Victor Goines, Jason Marshall, Mark Gross, Tiger Okoshi and Mulgrew Miller.

8. Sara Serpa – Mobile. Serpa’s claim to fame is vocalese – imagine the purest, most crystalline soprano sax that could possibly exist, then add mega-amounts of soul, determination, originality and frequent existential angst along with moody, intense, counterintuitively crescendoing, sometimes third-stream themes inspired by writing about travel and migration. With Kris Davis, Andre Matos, Ben Street and Ted Poor.

9. The Captain Black Big Band. This was ticket that everybody wanted, and nobody could get this year, pianist Orrin Evans’ mighty, swinging steamroller. Evans is a cerebral guy, but this group is a pure raw adrenaline rush. With a huge cast frequently including Rob Landham, Gianluca Renzi, Todd Marcus, Ralph Bowen, Jim Holton, Anwar Marshall, Tatum Greenblatt, Mark Allen, Jaleel Shaw and Neil Podgurski.

10. Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Hothouse Stomp. The trumpeter resurrects blazing, barely three-minute gems from Harlem and Chicago in the 20s by Tiny Parham, Charles Johnson and Fess Williams. With Dennis Lichtman, Andy Laster, Matt Bauder, Curtis Hasselbring, Jordan Voelker, Mazz Swift, Brandon Seabrook and Rob Garcia.

11. Iconoclast – Dirty Jazz. Technically, this came out at the very tail end of 2010, but who’s counting? Julie Joslyn’s liquid mercury alto sax (and snarling violin) and Leo Ciesa’s slasher drums (and icily melodic piano) are in full noir effect on this uncompromising, smartly aware, assaultively lurid effort.

12. Brian Landrus – Traverse. Much like Gerry Mulligan fifty years ago, the baritone saxophonist pushes the limits of where his instrument can go, with a warm melodicism to match, over grooves that range from latin to reggae to a jazz waltz to hypnotic ambience. With Michael Cain, Lonnie Plaxico and Billy Hart.

13. Rich Halley – Requiem for a Viper. A raw, powerhouse, sometimes explosive, sometimes deviously witty improvisationally-driven collection of intense originals, more of a party than a funeral, the saxophonist backed by a mighty rhythm section of bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley along with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich.

14. Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser – Synastry. Just bass and vocals have never sounded more interesting than they do here on these two improvisers’ stunningly diverse, sometimes unexpectedly amusing and tuneful duos.

15. Monty Alexander – Harlem-Kingston Express Live. Where the preeminent Jamaican pianist of our era lyrically, genially and triumphantly explores both his jazz and reggae roots: it’s only a tad less exhilarating than his 1995 Yard Movement effort. With Hassan Shakur, Obed Calvaire,Yotam Silberstein, Andy Bassford, Hoova Simpson, Karl Wright and Robert Thomas.

16. Bad Luck – Two. Like Iconoclast, this is basically sax and percussion, with electronic effects that add a creepy edge to the compositions and improvisations on this white-knuckle-intense double-disc set from drummer/percussionist Christopher Icasiano and saxophonist Neil Welch.

17. Michel Camilo – Mano a Mano. Where the Dominican pianist teams up with his longtime bassist Charles Flores and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo for an intimate but often exhilarating blend of third-stream and Afro-Cuban themes.

18. Patrick Cornelius – Maybe Steps. The alto saxophonist’s artful, shapeshifting compositions mine rich veins of modalities, murky noir themes and nocturnal melody: although this is a studio recording, it has the unleashed energy of a stage show. With Gerald Clayton, Peter Slavov, Kendrick Scott, Miles Okazaki and Assen Doykin.

19. The Phil Dwyer Orchestra – Changing Seasons. The Canadian saxophonist/bandleader’s take on a four-seasons suite is lushly tuneful and sweepingly orchestrated, and ends on a surprisingly effective, upbeat note. With a huge cast of characters including a full string section as well as contributions from Mark Fewer, Chris Gestrin, Jon Wikan and Ingrid Jensen.

20. Benjamin Drazen – Inner Flights. The saxophonist has speed and power, and even more impressively, a restless intensity when it comes to songwriting. Alternating between pensive, edgy modes and big swing anthems, he leads a first-class band featuring Jon Davis in particularly scorching mode on piano along with Carlo De Rosa on bass and Eric McPherson on drums.

21. Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble – Inana. This time out, the innovative Iraqi-American quartertone trumpeter brings Middle Eastern themes into American jazz rather than the other way around in this bracing, fascinating suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war. With Tareq Abboushi, Zafer Tawil, Ole Mathisen, Carlo DeRosa and Nasheet Waits.

22. David Gibson – End of the Tunnel. The trombonist’s late-night Memphis style 60s soul groove album that imaginatively adds rhythmic complexity to Booker T. and Stax/Volt B3 organ vamps. With Julius Tolentino, Jared Gold and Quincy Davis.

23. Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – Third River Rangoon. It’s amazing how lush and hypnotic Brian O’Neill a.k.a. Mr. Ho gets a flute, marimba, bass and percussion to sound on this utterly narcotic collection of nocturnes, many of which playfully pilfer well-known classical themes. It’s by far the most psychedelic album on this list.

24. Carlo Costa – Crepuscular Activity. The drummer’s sepulchral duo improvisations with bass flutist Yukari make an excellent segue with #23 above, 27 whispery, creepy minutes of shadowy furtiveness and sometimes pure chill.

25. Dave Juarez – Round Red Light. Juarez is a guitarist who doesn’t play like one, favoring terseness and melody every time over flash and ostentation; this album’s nocturnes, boleros, waltzes and a couple of barn-burners have a vivid, sometimes wary European flavor. With Seamus Blake, John Escreet, Lauren Falls and Bastian Weinhold.

December 18, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Orrin Evans Makes a Party Record for Smart People

Pianist Orrin Evans has been on some kind of a roll lately, as a solo artist, in his mighty Captain Black Big Band,and also the impossibly eclectic, brilliant trio Tarbaby with Eric Revis and Nasheet Waits. His latest album, Freedom, which has been out about a month on Posi-Tone, was recorded about a year ago (right before the Tarbaby record came out), capturing Evans in slightly more relaxed mode. Emphasis on “slightly” – there’s still plenty of his trademark restless intensity here. But it’s also a party record, mostly a trio session with Dwayne Burno on bass and Byron Landham (from Evans’ original 90s trio) on drums, with Anwar Marshall from the big band taking over behind the kit on three tracks, plus tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna guesting on a couple more. Thematically, it’s a tribute to Evans’ friends and mentors – which makes a lot of sense when you hear it.

Charles Fambrough’s One for Honor kicks it off, brisky, catchy, almost scurrying. Essentially, it’s a cleverly ornamented two-chord modal theme, Evans working a lively call-and-response between contrasting two-bar pairs. A simple, memorable blues, Gray’s Ferry, by Burno provides a canvas for soulful McKenna inflections and a typically cerebral Evans solo, with the drums bringing the party atmosphere up. The uninhibited joy of Evans firing off ripples following a particularly inspiring sax motif, and the spirited crash of Landham’s cymbals, is just plain irresistible. The third track, Shades of Green, begins with a gorgeous series of turnaround that defiantly refuse to resolve, Landham’s rumble beneath Evans’ judicious, ringing chords evoking a genuine majesty. That’s a signature style for Evans, one he evokes even more potently on the album’s seventh cut, Oasis, which shifts from samba-inflected soul to rippling restlessness to an electrifying modal intensity, which sadly fades out too soon – it would be awfully nice to see what destination this crew might have been able to find for it.

Evans’ sole original here, Dita, is an expansive, slow ballad with understated grandeur and an apt Burno solo. Hodge Podge features a cool piano/drum interchange over a devious 12/8 beat, and then a heated Marshall solo spot where he still manages to keep the rhythm absolutely front and center. They also romp through Time After Time, with a clever bass-and-drum conversation, give Duane Eubanks’ As Is a bright swing treatment and close with Herbie Hancock’s Just Enough, Evans and the rest of the band letting its quiet gravitas speak for itself. If melodic jazz is your thing and you don’t know this guy, you’re missing out.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band Is Everything You’d Expect

In some ways, what Pink Floyd, Nektar, Supertramp and all the rest of the orchestrated rock bands were to the “classic rock” era, new big band jazz is to the decade of the teens. It’s where you get your epic grandeur fix. Towering, intense angst; full-blown exhilaration. There’s a lot more of the latter than the former on pianist Orrin Evans’ brand-new Captain Black Big Band album, but there’s still gravitas and intensity as you would expect from him. Like the Mingus repertory bands, Evans employs a rotating cast for this group, in this case an A-list mostly from New York and Philadelphia, in a live concert recording. Also like Mingus, the compositions blend an impatient urban bustle with an irrepressible joie de vivre. The compositions are pretty oldschool, closer to Mingus or Ellington than, say, than Jim McNeely.

The album gets started on a trad note with Art of War, a brisk bluesy swing tune by drummer Ralph Peterson. Rob Landham’s alto solo goes squalling quickly and spirals out neatly with a blaze as the brass rises – it’s sort of a warmup for what’s to come.Here’s the Captain, by bassist Gianluca Renzi opens with Evans’ murky distant piano grandeur – it’s a Cuban son montuno groove led by the trombone, an incisively simmering Victor North tenor solo followed by Evans who stays on course with a couple of cloudbursts thrown in for good measure. Inheritance, by bass clarinetist and big band leader Todd Marcus is swinging and exuberant with New Orleans tinges and a modified Diddleybeat. The first of Evans’ compositions, Big Jimmy is a soaring swing number with some deftly concealed rhythmic trickiness, trumpeter Walter White faking a start and then moving it up to some blissed-out glissandos, followed by tenor player Ralph Bowen who jumps in spinning out wild spirals – it’s adrenalizing to the extreme.

Buoyantly memorable in a late 50s Miles kind of way, Captain Black maxes out a long, fiery ensemble passage into solos by pianist Jim Holton (Evans has moved to the podium to conduct), Bowen shifting from shuffle to sustain followed by trombonist Stafford Hunter shadowboxing with the band. They save the best for last with the final two tunes. Easy Now is absolutely gorgeous, a study in dark/light contrasts with an ominous, dramatic low brass-driven intro lit up by drummer Anwar Marshall’s blazing cymbals. Trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt and then baritone saxophonist Mark Allen go from pensive to assured and playful over Evans’ wary, wounded gospel-tinged lines; it winds up on a roaring, powerful note. The album concludes with the rich sepia tones of Jena 6, a track that also appears on Evans’ superb Tarbaby album from last year, referencing the Arkansas students persecuted in the wake of a 2007 attack by white racists. A lyrical Neil Podgurski piano intro begins the harrowing narrative with an ominous series of slow, portentous gospel-tinged crescendos. As Jaleel Shaw’s alto moves from genial swing to unhinged cadenzas and anguished overtones while the orchestra cooks behind him and then leaves him out to wail all alone, the effect is viscerally stunning. Count this among the most richly satisfying albums of 2010 so far. Evans will be interviewed on NPR’s A Blog Supreme this Friday the 25th; the album is just out on Posi-Tone.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments