One Track Mind: Orrin Evans on "Captain Black," "Commitment," "Jena 6," Others


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On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews' One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to Orrin Evans, a former sideman with Bobby Watson who quickly established himself as one of jazz music's most fascinating new voices over the course of a solo career begun in 1994. Here, the pianist shares unique insights into some of his more memorable tracks.

Find out just who Captain Black was. How his chance discovery of a 1970 Belafonte/Horne recording called Harry & Lena provided a touchstone track that Evans still hasn't stopped exploring—even though he hates the lyrics. How Evans feels he has never quite gotten another song, part of a suite dedicated to his mother, completely right either.

And, of course, there's the stirring story of “Jena 6," an old song remade through Jaleel Shaw's stunning solo sax performance in front of a New York audience ...

“I WANT TO BE HAPPY" (DÉJÀ VU, 1995; and LISTEN TO THE BAND, 1999): One of Evans' more intriguing explorations, this instrumental take on a decades-old Lena Horne vocal has been presented in two radically different versions already: First, with a trio on Evans' debut sessions from 1994 (taking a more conventional 3/4 approach) and then as a daring abstract with a combo featuring Ralph Bowen and Sam Newsome five years later.

Evans: The band has been playing that for so long, after a while you change up the tune or you get tired of it. (Laughs.) That's a record I picked up in a second-hand shop. I loved the simplicity of the tune, though I'm no fan of the lyrics: “I can't be happy until I make you happy, too." So, you've got to spend the rest of your life trying to make somebody else happy? I try to stay away from the lyrics.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Orrin Evans talks about upholding the legacy of McCoy Tyner, stalking Ralph Bowen—and loving Philadelphia just the way it is.]

“CAPTAIN BLACK" (EASY NOW, 2005): Evans, at 30, already had already recorded 10 albums. That lent this seasoned complexity to an album dedicated to his father, Donald T. Evans. (His favorite saying gave the release its title.) This track, along with Evans' smart re-arrangement of Horace Silver's “Song For My Father," were high points. “Captain Jack" later became the name of Evans' big band.

Evans: The reason it's called “Captain Black" is, he smoked that brand of tobacco. That was part of a larger tribute to my dad after he passed away. He was the one who introduced me to this music, and it's taken me to so many things. My dad's main focus was always straight up and down swinging. So that's why that tune hopefully comes across like that.

“I LOVE YOU" (DÉJÀ VU, 1995): A promising debut, featuring Matthew Parrish on bass and Byron Landham on drums, that may have found its most present, absorbing moment with Evans' lightly swinging take on this Cole Porter standard.

Evans: That was a sound check! (Laughs.) We were going back the second day to record the album, and the mic placement was different. We were testing that everything was the same. We started playing “I Love You"—and I thought, “I'm putting that on the record."

“COMMITMENT" (MEANT TO SHINE, 2002): Paired again with Bowen and Newsome on a post bop/free bop-influenced debut for Palmetto, Evans presents six originals, but none more ambitious than this 10 plus-minute exploration. Evans was revisiting a track he'd earlier attempted, on 2000's Seed, and he remains unsatisfied with the results. “Commitment" is unsparingly iconoclastic, but also endlessly bewitching—for listeners and for Evans, too.

Evans: It's still never been done correctly. The song is part of a suite that I've never recorded fully that I did for my mother. I need to record that whole suite so people can get the vibe of how it goes in its entirety. It's about my mother's commitment to us, my siblings and I, and her commitment to everything. I could never really play that song the way I wanted; it's like it never really comes together—though Ralph Bowen does an amazing job on the bass clarinet. Sometimes you are always chasing a tune, and that's one of those times.

“JENA 6" (CAPTAIN JACK BIG BAND, 2011): The finale of Evans' new seven-track Posi-tone release, featuring an 18-member group of the same name, deftly illustrates the range of emotions surrounding a racially charged 2007 incident that galvanized a Louisiana village, moving from a churchy opening by Neil Podgurski on piano through to a memorably scalding solo from altoist Jaleel Shaw.

Evans: What's funny is, that's also not the first time that song was recorded, but it's become the one everyone remembers. Jaleel played that amazing solo, and that did it. ("Jena 6" was originally included on The End of Fear, a 2010 trio release for Posi-tone Records.) But this one—people talk about the tune. That night, Jaleel hit it. I remember writing that piece; it's only about six measures of melody, but it was very hymn-like with just the piano trio. The version that's on the record, the band was supposed to come back in and play the last four bars of the melody out, but Jaleel had done such an amazing solo, I told the band not to be come back in. Sometimes, there's nothing more to say.

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