Last week, I caught up with Orrin Evans for an interview for Alternate Takes. The pianist, composer and band leader was in town for a gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village with his much-buzzed-about big band. A couple of songs into the second set, Evans turns his famously hospitable energy toward the audience, as he introduces the band. “Welcome to Captain Black Big Band. For those of you who have read my recent Facebook rants, Captain Black is the tobacco my Dad used to smoke,” Evans defends. “…but I am wearing a dashiki, so it can mean whatever you want it to!”
He proceeds to introduce the tune the band just played – “Captain Black.” He then jokes encouragingly to his predominately White audience. “Come on guys, you can take it,” speaking of all of the “Black” references being tossed in their laps at lightning speed. It is classic Orrin Evans fashion to make his audience laugh, think and cringe, all at the same time. His honesty, though sometimes tough to hear (depending on where you’re coming from) is distinctively wrapped in warmth and convincingly well-intentioned.
Evans’ recent “Facebook rants” about Blacks mobilizing in the jazz industry in terms of an increased level of participation and ownership on the business side, among some other topics, have received some heated backlash from a few, and even apprehension to concede from some of his Black contemporaries. For Evans, his philosophies are ingrained; the result of a household filled with robust cultural awareness and exposure, education, and a fierce intention to raise a child who was keenly aware, and secure with his identity. “My father was Professor of African American Studies for 30 years at Trenton State College, and Professor of English at Princeton University, and I grew up in the Black arts movement because he was also a playwright. Then I grew up with my mom who was an opera singer who came through Opera Ebony and Opera North which was the Black opera company, so in my house it was constantly ‘hold you head high.’” When it came to the cruel names his dark-complexioned sister was taunted by, Evans reflects on his parents’ response, citing just one of the countless teachable moments that they would take advantage of throughout his upbringing. “My father would grab all the kids in the neighborhood, and sit them on the steps and say ‘Check this out. This is Africa and this is why there are different complexions…’ So that’s how I grew up. So I can’t do anything different.”
Orrin Evans grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and emerged on the New York City jazz scene in the mid-90s after attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. A flourishing time for young jazz musicians, he was quickly recognized as an exceptional talent, and released his first album as a leader in 1994, and has at least ten more albums under his belt, to date. He has dozens of recording credits, and has played with an array of jazz and popular artists like Bobby Watson, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Mos Def, Common, Dave Douglas, Brandford Marsalis, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane, and The Mingus Big Band. He is a label executive, producer, arranger, educator and most recently, a big band director.
Captain Black Big Band is comprised of a combination of local and renowned jazz musicians from the Philadelphia and New York area and has included Ralph Bowen, Wayne Escoffery, Tia Fuller, Jaleel Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Brian Kilpatrick, Tim Warfield, Stafford Hunter, Frank Lacy, Brent White, Todd Marcus, Luques Curtis, Anwar Marshall, Gene Jackson, and Donald Edwards – - to name some. The album, which bears the same name as the band, is comprised of original tunes by Evans, Ralph Peterson, Gianluca Renzi and Todd Marcus. It is a joyous and meaningful assemblage of music, life and love, captured via live recording dates in both NYC and Philly. I was caught off guard when Evans explained the genesis of such an ambitious project. “The idea behind it was just boredom,” says Evans. “That’s the truth. Sometimes living in Philly, and that two hour commute to New York…I just wanted to do something. And I had just gotten back from Portugal where I led this big band of college students, and I thought, wow, that was kind of fun, and I said well maybe I’ll do this during my down time in Philly. Nothing more. But then when it started, I said this is really coming together. And I have to admit, I married the right partner. My wife was like alright, you’re bullshitting, we’re gonna do a record; gotta do the record. I just did this to be doing it, and it kinda grew into something. I called on other friends to fill in where some of the college students who were in Philly couldn’t handle. I called Gene Jackson and Donald Edwards, and a lot of other people. And I’ve never arranged for a big band. And the thing is, people think that I did all these arrangements. Charles Mingus didn’t do a lot of arrangements for his big band. I wrote the tunes and then I was blessed to have Todd Bashore do a pile of arrangements and so the band started coming together. And my thing is, what I’ve realized was like, New York…actually the industry…they want something to talk about. So, here it is; Orrin Evans’ next thing.”
If you’re trying to keep up with Evans — good luck. High on energy and ideas, he’s already working on the next big band album, as well as a new release from his group Tar Baby; a trio that includes bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits. Based on a concept from African-American folklore, Tar Baby represents a powerful message. “I grew up with Uncle Remus. My father, like I said, was a playwright and used to read Uncle Remus stories. The story of the tar baby is pretty much that Br’er Rabbit wanted to trick everybody and you can grab the tar baby and you’re stuck on what is real. So we all got into a thing that tar baby is jazz. These other musicians — black, white, purple, green — don’t wanna grab onto. They don’t wanna get stuck on the concept that this is Black music. So there it is, and Tar Baby was born.”
Last year, Evans also released Faith In Action, which received critical acclaim. The album is a tribute to one of his most important mentors, Bobby Watson. A bold and inspiring homage, Faith In Action is a strong argument for playing the music of the living; a seemingly lost tradition in jazz today. “I’ve recorded Duane Eubanks tunes, a Chris Beck (a 20-something year old drummer from Philly) tune on my last record. A big part of it is that I have never forgotten where I came from. Everybody came through Bobby Watson, I don’t care who you are. If you’re in the same age range as me — between 32 and 55 – you came up through Bobby Watson. Frank Lacy came through Bobby Watson, Chris McBride. Roy Hargrove; his first recording date was with Bobby Watson. Benny Green. I mean, I can go down the list. Regardless of what people may think. People may say ‘Bobby’s cool…’ and Bobby is cool. Bobby may not be John Coltrane. Bobby may not be Kenny Garrett; I don’t really care. The point is, how did I get in the door? The problem is a lot of us forget where we came from. I remember being in the Metronome, and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker and Ralph Bowen. And remember seeing Bilal, Robert Glasper…all of them were there checking out the music. They’ve always been checking out the music. They will always talk about that time. That time meant something to them. The problem now is a lot of younger musicians are like ‘I’m just here,’ like they’re in Star Trek and they pressed a button and they morphed here. I cannot deny that I got in the door through Bobby Watson. He opened the door and let me in. That’s all that record was about. Let me play his music.”
Like so many before him, Evans has kept with the tradition of not just paying homage to those pivotal figures in his life, but utilizing jazz music’s vital role as a means of social commentary with his stirring composition, “Jena 6.” Songs like Ambrose Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Jena 6″ are unfortunate reminders of the world we live in. I asked about the importance of telling these stories in jazz. “Now it’s important to tell the story through the music and dot-dot-dot…whatever medium that is. And when you get the microphone and on Facebook and on Twitter, ‘cuz others need to hear that story. You never know. Like today is my mother’s birthday. But that’s important for me to tell tonight because I’m 36 years old and don’t have either one of my parents. But I still feel empowered. So, I tell that story because someone in that audience that I’m gonna play for tonight might have lost their mother, or may have lost their father. So it’s important for me to play “Jena 6,” because I’m telling a story just like Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.” Just like Max, or Miles, but I can’t let it stop with playing a song. Because sometimes you play the song and nobody knows who Orval Faubes was. Nobody knows that he’s the dude who prevented desegregation in schools, so you have to say it, too.”
It is perhaps the “saying” that many of today’s musicians are struggling with, especially in the shrinking music industry climate. “There’s tons of people that come to mind that are really willing to speak up. But there’s also a lot of people that are scared. They’re really scared because they’re all grabbing for the same thing. There’s four booking agents, there’s four managers, and those people are in control of… you look at the top jazz people who I love and respect. They’re like, if I wanna play there, I need to be cool with this person, so everyone is holding on to the little bit that they have. That’s number one. They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”
For reasons understandable, Evans takes the relationships with his band mates seriously; especially off of the bandstand. The social climate seems to suggest that bringing up truthful points — not opinion — is enough for an artist to be labeled with unfair and assumed agendas or platforms. For Evans’ supporters (or supporters of any other Black jazz musician that dare have a mind to speak), there is an understanding that there may be consequence for any level of an agreeable attitude. To illustrate, two artists (whose names will not be mentioned here) have had their record labels contacted, and were specifically asked not to comment on Evans’ Facebook comments. Though Evans’ fans and supporters far outweigh the few who are taking issue, the horror of what that kind of action symbolizes in the grand scheme of things is worthy of the dedication of an entirely separate post. But for Evans, it is quite simple. “My lead alto player calls me an hour before you got here and couldn’t make it [for the Zinc Bar gig tonight]. So I’m thinking, is there a shortage of lead alto players in New York? No. Is there a shortage of lead alto players that are comfortable with my rants on Facebook? That have known me, known my wife, are familiar with my kids, and know where I’m coming from? Yes. So I’m like, shit.” Of course, Evans gets his altoist before the end of our time together, but his point is well taken. “I just need family around me. I wanna look at every person on that bandstand, and they know me. They know my family. That’s really important to me. Not just ‘cuz you the baddest cat. I can call the baddest cat. We all can.”
On his way back from Texas to New York to meet me for this interview, Evans’ described his appreciation for the flood of phone calls and text messages he received from an array of jazz industry figures as he walked through Newark airport. For Evans, the abundance of messages of hopes that he’ll continue to do this all important — if sometimes unpopular — enlightening, is motivation enough.
In terms of music, Evans is proving to be more prolific than ever. Recently placing in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll in the Big Band category, and releasing the gorgeous and relentlessly swinging Freedom (Posi-Tone) and several projects coming down the pike, Evans is still one of jazz music’s top contenders. ♦