Captain Black Big Band – Presence (Smoke Sessions)

This third — and best — release by pianist Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band opens rambunctiously and closes with the musicians laughing riotously with one another. While the album dovetails two separate performances in Philadelphia clubs, the effect is singular: These musicians came to play hard and enjoy themselves.

Evans titled this recording after a lively original by trumpeter Josh Lawrence, who establishes his presence right from the first track — “The Scythe” by trombonist David Gibson — and elicits enthusiastic whoops from his bandmates before unleashing a series of icy, cascading high notes. Tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts opens the following number, “Question,” with a largely unaccompanied introduction that bar honks, bebops and bounces before the band kicks in; here, the ensemble flirts with controlled cacophony yet never sounds chaotic. Energized by drummer Anwar Marshall, the funky “Trams” opens with hand clapping and eggs on the soloists with fun and funny wah-wah-ing brass. And the sequencing of tunes could hardly be better, with ballads and waltzes interspersed between the pulse-raising barnburners.

Evans himself supplies understated but motivating leadership. He opens “Flip the Script,” one of his three originals on the album, with teasing, fractured phrases before the band joins him for a head that alternates between straight-up swing and angular syncopation. Similarly, he sets the 3/4 groove to introduce his composition “Answer.” But his greatest contribution may be on trumpeter John Raymond’s “Onward,” which begins with unaccompanied piano before segueing into lush, meditative orchestration. Evans closes that number, as well, but it’s his swelling solo in the center that provides the most lasting impact. Slowly rising, his phrasing guides listeners on an inspiring ascent, as though he were climbing the stone steps of a temple that has lasted centuries.— Sascha Feinstein

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