Of all the projects that pianist Orrin Evans has his fingers in, his Captain Black Big Band are arguably the most exciting. They’re definitely the loudest. It’s amazing how Evans manages to find the time for them, considering that he leads smaller groups, everybody wants to play with him, and until the lockdown he had the closest thing in the jazz world to a serious money gig, taking over the piano chair in a certain popular trio and then elevating them above…where they were before.
Auspiciously, the Captain Black Big Band have a new album, The Intangible Between streaming at Spotify. The difference this time is that they aren’t quite as much of a careening beast as they’ve been in the past. Part of that’s due to the bandleader writing most of the charts, selecting very specific groups from a vast talent base to play the songs, and in general, varying the size of the orchestation more.
The album’s first track, Proclaim Liberty, opens with brassy optimism, then after a rippling bit of suspense, the band hit an anthemic drive. The tumbling pairings of piano and drums are as avant-garde as anything Evans has ever done, the solos from trumpet and sax as adrenalizing as ever.
His wide-angle swing arrangement of This Little Light of Mine rises with the horns out of a carefree piano-trio intro that offers a nod to Coltrane and telegraphs that there’s going to be plenty of room for spontaneity, notably a fiery sax-drums duel and some savagery from the bandleader himself.
The tenderness of Sean Jones’ flugelhorn throughout an understatedly majestic Todd Bashore arrangement of A Time For Love contrasts with an underlying tension, which evaporates when the rest of the horns float in. Evans dividing his hands between piano and Rhodes is an unexpected textural touch.
With its New Orleans ebullience and bright hooks, That Too comes across as a slightly stripped-down take on the completely unleashed sound the band made a name for themselves with, trombone and then soprano sax bringing in the storm.
Their loose-limbed, Sun Ra-ish take of Thelonious Monk’s Off Minor features a rhythm section bustling with four (!!!!) bassists and two drummers behind shreddy trumpet, spacy Rhodes and a rise to plenty of the group’s signature, barely controlled mass chaos.
Evans’ beefy yet spacious chart for Roy Hargrove’s Into Dawn gets lit up by spiraling alto sax, trumpet that delivers both sage blues and wild doublestops, and some serious crush from the piano. The album’s biggest epic is Evans’ arrangement of Andrew Hill’s Tough Love. In practically sixteen minutes, the group shift through fluttery stereo pairings of basses and piano, gritty dueling saxes, uneasily shifting sheets of sound, the whole ensemble helping Evans deliver an astute, politically insightful lyric by his brother, author and hip-hop artist Son of Black.
They wind up the record with I’m So Glad I Got To Know You, Evans’ elegy for his drummer friend Lawrence Leathers building from spare, stricken solo piano, to hints of calypso and a fond gospel sendoff. This is a mighty entertaining and rewardingly eclectic effort from a group also including but hardly limited to drummers Anwar Marshall and Mark Whitfield Jr., saxophonists Immanuel Wilkins, Troy Roberts and Caleb Wheeler Curtis, bassist Luques Curtis, trombonist David Gibson and bassist Eric Revis.