This dynamic, high-voltage big band collective, directed and occasionally conducted by rising star pianist and composer Orrin Evans, slams together a variety of styles on a frequently spectacular debut effort. One can hear the cheesy pizzazz of Vegas, the irresistible swing of Count Basie’s Kansas City, the rollicking hard bop found in urban jazz clubs and the avant-garde squall and thorns emanating from lofts and museum subscription concerts.
The 38 musicians who comprise the rotating personnel on these seven tracks are mostly up-and-comers from Evans’s hometown of Philadelphia, along with some higher-profile veterans from New York. Their playing blends savvy scholarship and a hunger to plumb their individual and collective voice. Recorded on three separate dates in the aforementioned two cities, the collection is suffused with electric intensity and bookended by a pair of jaw-dropping also sax solos — Rob Landham’s quicksilver phrases and angular ricochets on the opener, Ralph Peterson’s “Art of War” (arranged by Todd Bashore), and seven minutes of raw combustion from Jaleil Shaw on the closing, politically charged “Jena 6,” which culminates in a scalding cadenza.
Like most great big band efforts, the songs, arrangements, and ensemble energy conspire to provide both the launching pad and the initial thrust to propel the soloists forward. That’s certainly true of “Jena 6,” written and arranged by Evans, who follows the lead of his spiritual mentor, Charles Mingus, by pouring gutbucket blues over voicings of Ellingtonian complexity, creating a much broader song than the original version recorded by the pianist’s small-ensemble project, Tarbaby. But band-and-soloist synergy also happens on Gianluca Renzi’s “Here’s The Captain,” with its ruminative intro and Latin filigrees, and “Big Jimmy,” which glides from wry humor to finger-popping rhythms before yielding to a trio of sharp yet airy solos from lead trumpeter Walter White, tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen and drummer Anwar Marshall.
Big band records are prone to bouts of staid bluster. The energy from “Captain Black Big Band” is remarkably consistent and innovative — fresh from the cauldron and infectious to the listener.