Orrin Evans: Captain Philadelphia

Profile of the pianist and his Captain Black Big Band

Orrin Evans
Orrin Evans and Captain Black Big Band

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The prolific pianist Orrin Evans has long been an integral part of the Philly jazz scene, as both a catalyst within the city and an ambassador to the greater jazz consciousness. His Captain Black Big Band, with its mix of hometown heroes and higher-profile New York players, embodies that duality. But with clubs closing and mentors passing away, can the City of Brotherly Love keep its favorite son?


Upon reaching the climax of a fiery solo on Charles Mingus’ “Nostalgia in Times Square,” Orrin Evans’ fingers leap from the piano and stab at the air in front of him, amplifying the energy level of the members of his Captain Black Big Band. Sixteen instrumentalists suddenly extend the 88 keys, the ensemble playing with the same raw edge and raucous swing that Evans brings to bear on a keyboard improvisation. It’s a brisk Friday night in March, and the band is gigging at Chris’ Jazz Café in Philadelphia, celebrating the release of its self-titled Posi-Tone label debut.

Since its birth during a three-month residency at Chris’ in November 2009, the Captain Black Big Band has provided Evans with a stage on which to unleash his voice on a grand scale: the swagger, the humor, the unfiltered attitude-all familiar components of the pianist’s approach since he emerged on the scene in the mid-’90s. The band takes its name from Evans’ late father’s tobacco of choice, though the bandleader’s outspoken opinions on racial politics in jazz-he also co-leads a group named Tarbaby, after all-are inevitably a factor. At another Philadelphia performance, one of the recording dates for the new CD, he announced, “Captain Black isn’t about,” raising his fist in the black power salute. “But those of you who know me,” he continued, “know that Captain Black is of course about,” raising the fist a second time.

Back at Chris’, Evans’ unmistakable personality remains even when he steps away from the bandstand. He cedes the piano bench to Jim Holton and conducting duties to saxophonist and arranger Darryl Yokley, and strides to the front of the room to greet friends. “I’m trying to get more people into the Orrin Evans camp,” Evans said a few days earlier, at the neighborhood bar in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia where he’s a well-known regular. He’s discussing his requirements for entrusting another musician to lead in his stead. The big band’s sound, he says, is the product of intangibles that simply can’t be written on sheet music. “I need somebody who knows me, and not only musically. Have you been over to my house for dinner? That’s a humongous part of who I am. Get to know me and then you can deal with what I’m trying to do on the bandstand.”

The pool of musicians on which Evans draws to make up the Captain Black Big Band for any given performance is populated largely by those with whom he’s shared meals and more over the years. Old friends from Philly consistently appear: trumpeter Duane Eubanks, saxophonist Tim Warfield, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, bassist Mike Boone and the Landham brothers (drummer Byron and saxophonist Rob).

Then there are his longtime bandmates from the Mingus Big Band, where Evans has occupied the piano bench since 1999-players like trombonist Frank Lacy, trumpeter Jack Walrath, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and drummer Donald Edwards. Other NYC colleagues who appear on the album include saxophonist Tia Fuller and bassist Luques Curtis. “This record was done with love,” Evans says. “I don’t have the financial resources to get the all-star cats, but I have the care and the love to get those same cats. I’m really blessed. Everything about this band and this record was a labor of love, and it’s become a big extended family.” Captain Black inevitably reflects that family reunion feeling whenever they take the stage: Inside jokes fly, and Evans springs from his seat to goad or encourage, his boisterous laugh roaring out over the blaring horns.

Trombonist Ernest Stuart, a key member of the big band since its inception, recognized early on how deeply tied Evans and the ensemble’s music were (and are). “It’s very straightforward, at times aggressive, with some humor in it,” Stuart said after one 2009 performance. “It’s kind of dark sometimes; other times it’s extremely happy and joyous. It’s crazy at times and things are happening on the fly. I think that’s a direct reflection of Orrin’s personality.”

The idea of absorbing bandmates into a large, rambunctious family is one that Evans credits to saxophonist Bobby Watson, his longtime employer and mentor. “Bobby made his band his family and friends,” Evans recalls. “That’s what you have to do if you want to get on the bandstand and play some real music with these cats. I learned a lot about leading a band from Bobby.”

Evans returned that favor with last year’s Faith in Action, which recast several of Watson’s tunes and several of the pianist’s own in a trio format with bassist Curtis and drummers Nasheet Waits, Rocky Bryant and Gene Jackson. Evans’ prolific 2010 also included The End of Fear, the second release from Tarbaby, Evans’ collective group with Waits and bassist Eric Revis. The album featured saxophonists J.D. Allen and Oliver Lake and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and a third Tarbaby record is in the planning stages, with more special guests in the offing.

The Philly/New York make-up of the Captain Black group is also a representation of the leader and his life, as he wearily puts it, “up and down the New Jersey Turnpike.” Born in Trenton, N.J., in 1975, Evans was raised in North Philadelphia and has been an integral member of the city’s jazz scene for most of his professional life. (His next leader release, a trio record with fellow Philadelphians Dwayne Burno and Byron Landham plus guests, will pay tribute to the city’s sound. Titled Freedom! , it’s scheduled to drop this summer.) He refuses to bear the brand of the “local musician,” however, and maintains a strong presence in New York and beyond.

He’s taken two stabs at making the move north. The first, in 1994, ended when he returned to manage a Philadelphia jazz club. During the second, in 1996, he managed to secure a more permanent foothold that he maintained even after returning home again to raise his two sons with his wife, singer Dawn Warren.

With the older of his boys having just turned 18, Evans is again contemplating relocation. “I love Philly,” he says. “I love living here. But the jazz scene has changed drastically. I’ve tried to keep it going, and I’ll continue to try, but I don’t want to put it on my shoulders.” He cites the recent closing of Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, his longtime haunt, which effectively leaves Chris’ as the only full-time jazz club in the city. “Philly has one jazz club?” he asks, incredulous. “For real? That’s deep. I might as well live in Oklahoma.”


Ortlieb’s, owned by saxophonist Pete Souders until its last few years, had long served as the center of Evans’ musical universe. His earliest memories of live jazz stem from accompanying his father, a jazz-loving playwright, to the Tuesday night jam sessions there. Jim Holton was the pianist in the house band at the time, an influence which Evans repaid decades later when enlisting Holton (along with Neil Podgurski) to share piano duties in the Captain Black Big Band.

Evans was a regular at those Tuesday night sessions, sitting in with Ortlieb’s famed house bands: Shirley Scott with drummer Mickey Roker in the early days, the “Philly Rhythm Section” of Sid Simmons, Mike Boone and Byron Landham more recently. The club locked its doors for good last April, and Simmons’ passing in November drew that era to a close with even greater finality. Organist Trudy Pitts, whom Evans referred to as “Aunt Trudy,” died last December. Both had given sage advice and encouragement to Evans and countless other up-and-coming jazz musicians over the years, and their absence deals a harsher blow to the local scene than even the scarcity of venues. “We’ve lost a lot,” Evans says. “We’re the elders now. It’s a big responsibility, and to be honest, I don’t know if everybody’s ready for it. That’s my fear for Philadelphia now: The ones who are in the position to do what needs to be done, are they really ready for that? Some people are just going to do what they gotta do and go home, which is fine, but when that continues to happen we lose a lot of younger ones by the wayside. Philly won’t be what Philly was for me. I’m a little scared about the future. But until I’m gone, I’m going to keep holding it up and doing what I do.”

That includes regular attempts to lead a jam session that will do for Philly’s young players what Tuesday night at Ortlieb’s did for Evans. The latest incarnation is a Monday Happy Hour jam at World Café Live, which he inaugurated early last year. And the Captain Black Big Band, whose membership includes several recent and almost graduates of the city’s jazz programs, is another under-pressure educational environment.

Saxophonist Wade Dean, the director of jazz studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is a regular member of the band’s horn section. “As a young cat, this is everything you dream about,” Dean says. “You listen to these cats and now they’re your colleagues. You don’t get this type of stuff in school. It’s that real education they tell you about: the mentorship, the apprenticeship.”

Evans says that the types of lessons learned on the bandstand both complement and contrast those learned in the classroom. “It’s like yin and yang,” he says, “male/female: You have to learn how to combine both. If you’ve been in academia for four years, then you come out and these records are true, they relate to you. But they’re not about love, they’re not about anything-they’re about what they did for the last four years, which is the G-minor-seventh-augmented-flat-five-four-three-two chord. So we’re alienating certain people when we’re supposed to be about bringing people together. It’s just boring; it’s stale.”

There’s nothing stale about the way Evans conducts his big band. Even with fine arrangements in the book by the likes of saxophonists Todd Bashore and Todd Marcus and bassist Gianluca Renzi, more often than not Evans makes changes on the fly during every set, influenced by Butch Morris’ conduction and Evans’ own long tenure with the Mingus Big Band. “The freedom concept definitely comes from the Mingus Big Band and from Butch Morris,” he says. “After being in the Mingus Big Band since 1999, there are things that are never going to be on that paper. I feel sorry when other piano players who have never played the book come in. I’m like, ‘Oh, sorry, we do this shit right here. You ready?’ Which is something I’ve been bringing into the big band. ‘All right, you’ve spent four or five years in school. You went back and got your master’s? None of that’s going to help you right now. One, two…'”

As Bashore describes Evans’ leadership, “He’s like a chef at a pot, adding ingredients as he feels like it, tasting all the time and seeing what it needs and then throwing something else in. We may have an arrangement ready, but you can’t assume that at the gig it’s just going to go down as it is. It’s a lot of fun for a musician, because it’s creative and you never know what’s going to happen. It keeps you on your toes.”

Not that founding the big band was an entirely magnanimous gesture, a finishing school for horn players. It also serves as a channel for the leader’s seemingly boundless energies, as well as a calling card for his extramusical abilities. “It started out as just an opportunity to play,” he shrugs. “If I’m not on the road, I still need to stay motivated-it’s almost like going to the gym. And I’ve always been an entrepreneur, trying to get things done, and this says, ‘Hey, Orrin can do some shit other than play the piano. He can organize. He can put this project together and make it sound like this with no rehearsals.’ So part of it for me is selling myself in a different way.”

He’s quick to point out, however, the collaborative nature of the band. Evans plays on only two of the disc’s seven tracks, soloing only once. The bulk of the book consists of his own compositions, but also includes the occasional standard or pieces contributed by collaborators like Ralph Peterson, Eric Revis or Renzi. Most of the arrangements are by either Bashore or Marcus; Evans’ one arranging credit, for his own “Jena 6,” he shrugs off as “just a lead sheet that we do some creative things with.

“Over time,” Evans continues, “I’m hoping to develop my arranging for big bands, but for now, I can arrange people, and I know what I want to happen. I’m like the general contractor: I can get the electrician, I can get the plumber and I can get your house looking killing. But I’m not getting dirty.”

Onstage, however, the Captain Black Big Band exhibits plenty of grit, in the off-the-cuff, daredevil maneuvering encouraged by its leader.