Jazz Album of the Week: Orrin Evans and Captain Black Big Band Navigate The Intangible Between

Jun 8, 2020

June 8, 2020. From founding the Captain Black Big Band in 2009 to replacing Ethan Iverson as The Bad Plus’s pianist in 2018, Philadelphia native Orrin Evans has never shied away from taking a leap into the musical unknown.

But Captain Black has always felt like Evans’ home, musically and otherwise—what he calls “The Village” comprises Evans, his bandmates and everyone who makes Captain Black a tangible reality. It’s only from the comfort of home, with a village’s worth of help at his disposal, that Evans could begin to explore the intangible. That’s what he’s done here with his latest, The Intangible Between.

Captain Black’s hallmark since those early gigs at Chris’ Jazz Café has been a knack for blending the majesty and precision of a large jazz orchestra with the improvisational pliability of a small group. That’s all still there, and it still takes “The Village”—20 musicians see action here, nine to 14 on any given cut.

But it’s two musicians who couldn’t be present who inspire the album’s most poignant moments. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove and drummer Lawrence “Lo” Leathers were two of the most respected, relatively young names in jazz before each died suddenly over the past couple of years. Evans counted both as close friends and peers.

There’s a tune dedicated to each here and both rank highly on the The Intangible Between’s highlight reel.

The Village honors Hargrove with an inspired take on the late trumpeter’s “Into Dawn.” Arranged here by longtime Captain Black trombonist David Gibson, Hargrove’s composition isn’t transformed so much as it is made that much more verdant and three-dimensional. With so many horn voicings, the piece’s harmonic potential is fully realized, as if to communicate that Hargrove wasn’t playing a solo trumpet into the unknown—his boys had his back.

Even more affecting is the album’s closer, “I’m So Glad I Got to Know You,” the tribute to Leathers who became a known force as Cecile McLorin Salvant’s timekeeper on two Grammy-winning albums.

A sorrowful Evans prologue gives grief its due, but just for a moment, as the Captain Black horns move in behind it like a spell of the strongest sunlight sending black clouds back from whence they came. A pulsing, syncopated flute riff issues over the horn-driven theme, speaking in some kind of ancient language of the divine that only flutes remember.

Evans lets that simmer and build through a couple refrains before kicking things into a full Weather Report-style groove. Immanuel Wilkins’ soprano saxophone, in overlapping dialogue with a member of the trumpet section, soars over a blistering Evans’ groove that has big band anthem potential written all over it. If Weather Report’s “Birdland” gets you to where you need to be, keep listening here; you’ll soon be in your happy place.

Best bet from there is to work backwards through the album. The penultimate tune “Tough Love” is a 15-plus minute interdisciplinary buffet of jazz and poetry and spoken word that’s literally screaming out for love and peace, sure, but also, perhaps, for a stage adaptation with an accompanying dance element.

Politically charged, seeking to reconcile righteous fury with an as-yet unrealized American ideal, it’d be the perfect piece of performance art for this very moment.

At the album’s center is an arrangement of Monk’s “Off Minor” by one of Evans’ Philly protégés, the ascendant trumpeter Josh Lawrence. The Monk original penned for quartet is already an off-kilter tune, so what might become of it, you ask, when arranged for 14 pieces, including two drummers and four bassists?

Lawrence’s arrangement is frenetic to be sure, but somehow the number of musicians doesn’t suck all the oxygen out of the room. If a version of Evans’ Tough Love does reach the stage, this arrangement of “Off Minor” needs to be part of the program; there’s something intuitively simpatico about the two pieces. Both speak to the thin line between exhaustion and euphoria where the most original musical ideas often originate.

Don’t check out before catching “That Too,” an Evans composition that really showcases Wilkins (soprano) and longtime Captain Black-er Todd Bashore (alto sax) as brilliant soloists.

And speaking of Bashore, you’ll find his arrangement of “A Time for Love,” the album’s lone true standard, highlighted by a thoughtful flugelhorn solo by longtime collaborator Sean Jones and Evans’ funky turn on the Fender Rhodes.

Finish with what may be the most quintessentially Captain Black tune on the album—a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” that was originally arranged for the WDR Big Band in Germany. The mix of structure and improvisation, the robust brawn of the big band with the improvisational brio of the small group, all coming together to play a tune you’ve heard a million times before but never like this.

Classic Captain Black Big Band.