...It Was Beauty
Ballad of Sam Langford
Orrin Evans works with one drummer and four different bassists on ...It Was Beauty, all of whom have played with the pianist in different ensembles. While Eric Revis plays on most of the tracks, Luques Curtis and Alex Claffy each get their turn and Ben Wolfe joins Revis on two tracks that manage to flow easily and avoid getting too busy in the low end. All of this is significant because the album’s mood shifts with nearly every track, emphasizing how equally adept Evans sounds in different situations.
The album’s programming bears this out, since only two of the 10 tracks were written by Evans. Evans turns Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation” into a New Orleans groove; reveals his deep spirituality in Andraé Crouch’s hymn “My Tribute,” with Claffy’s assistance; and slows Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” down to a crawl to give it a deeper examination. The dual basses of Revis and Wolfe work as an anchor and a countermelody, respectively, in “African Song,” leaving plenty of space for drummer Donald Edwards to cut loose. “Commitment,” an excerpt from a longer Evans original, never gets overly heavy either, and shows the deep variety of moods inherent in Evans’ piano work, by turns weighty and gentle but always enthralling. If anyone released an album this year that’s more diverse yet coherent, I’d like to hear it.
Tarbaby is a collective trio consisting of Evans, bassist Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits that began seven years ago. They’re joined on Ballad of Sam Langford by alto saxophonist Oliver Lake (back for a second time with the trio) and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. (Evans’ son Matthew also plays finger piano on one track.) The album’s title subject was a boxer from the 1900s known as the “the greatest fighter nobody knows,” who also had the unfortunate nickname “the Boston Tarbaby.” Aside from opening and closing with tracks called “Title Bout,” this strong set of music doesn’t exactly come off like a concept album, not that it needs a concept.
All five musicians wrote songs individually for the set. Akinmusire might seem like the wild card among the group but he sounds at home, whether adding wild growls and vocal squawks on “Korean Bounce,” or delivering the delicate ballad “Asiam” in a duet with Evans. Lake, whose fire and passion seem to grow with age, blends effectively with the trumpeter on “When” and “MBBS,” both of which have a ’60s Miles vibe about them. Then there is the core trio, which can easily take the music from straight-ahead to free and back. Waits’ lyrical “Kush” is a highlight among highlights. With the younger Evans joining them on “August,” they also engage in a little AACM fun, with Waits on recorder and Revis also on finger piano. All parties sound uninhibited, and the feeling is infectious.