The Modern Standard: What Is It?

Inspired by Spring’s indecisiveness a couple weeks ago, I decided not to brave the wind and rain this particular day, but to do some season-inspired cleaning instead. Thumbing through my music library, I settled on some classic Blue Note repertoire to help me through my chores: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Three Blind Mice, to be specific.  As the gorgeous and fittingly titled Freddie Hubbard waltz “Up Jumped Spring” played, it got me to thinking about the layers of musical camaraderie jazz music has always had.  Not just the cooperative nature of performing the music, but also in terms of what music was performed.  The vast landscape of jazz repertoire which includes Blues, Tin Pan Alley songs, show tunes, and pop songs, is most enriched by original compositions from jazz musicians themselves, which through the social contexts of the music, became standards in their own right.  Songs from Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Wayne Shorter had become modern jazz standards of their times because of their popularity and exposure within the jazz community.  I then started focusing on today, and my experiences at jazz performances.  Yes, the headliner is playing his or her original work, and yes the band, on some occasions, may feature a tune or two from a bandmate, but what were the odds that they would play a tune by a musical peer beyond their own band?  Slim to none, as far as I could tell.  Which got me to thinking: What is the modern jazz standard?

I began looking through the several Real Books laying around the house.  I couldn’t seem to find a song that was written in the last twenty years or so included.  With the plethora of prolific writers in jazz over this span of time, I found it odd.  What does this mean?  I started asking musicians for their take on why songs aren’t becoming popularized within the genre, and how this could affect their mark in history, if at all.

“People are so ensconced with doing their own thing, and don’t realize that it helps the music when we promote each other’s songs.  It helps the mentality,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.  “For a long time, people have regarded standards as the test of one’s mettle and that tradition has stood the test of time for years and years and it was also something that was meant to rope in somebody who hadn’t heard you before, so that was the paradigm of which all modern jazz players were based off of, before you get into your own thing.”

Doing one’s own thing has never been easier.  The collapse of crucial major jazz labels, and a shift in the art of record producing has birthed a DIY era of record making which, while incredibly liberating, also has its share of considerable consequences.  “What’s interesting about the industry in any musical [genre] is that years ago — and I mean in our time — it was special to make a record,” says Pelt, who has just released his ninth album, Soul; a gorgeous blues and ballads project.  “Nowadays, I could put together a record right now on my Mac Book in an hour.  I don’t need a label to do anything for me, I just put it together, get my Logic going, and put it right up on my website and I will have a bona fide record.  So, the change in the industry and the mentality is such that it’s not a special thing anymore, and that’s, in essence, what makes it very competitive, number one.  You would think it’s less competitive now, but it’s actually more competitive because nobody’s shit is special anymore.  It’s all very ego-driven, and I think that a lot of young composers are always in a rush to push their agenda, and everyone is guilty of it at some point.  I think that with me, I made it a conscious decision, after doing records of my own material, to really cast light on some of my comtemporaries’ songs.”  Pelt, who has one of the few long-established quintets in the business, has recorded the music of Anthony Wonsey, Myron Waldon and Eric Reed. “If there was something I was drawn to in a song, I would record it and I think that it benefits the community at large.  I think people are afraid to do it because they feel like it will take the spotlight away from their compositions, which is a valid feeling if you’re insecure like that, but realistically, it’s not like there’s a whole lot of spotlight on the [jazz] industry in general [laughs].”

Pianist Orrin Evans, who is bringing a sense of community back to the jazz scene with his big band, Captain Black, is one of the few bandleaders today proactively featuring original music of not only his peers, but his proteges alike. “There’s such a need now for branding,” says Evans, “that even if you sit down with the best publicist in the business now, the word that’s going to come up is ‘branding’.  If you sit down with a manager, everyone is talking about branding, and that whole package becomes so self-serving.  A lot of people, when they get that moment, it’s like, ‘I gotta play my music, and do my stuff.’  But I honestly believe that I can still be who I am by how I interpret other people’s music.  It doesn’t need to be my music.  Who I am isn’t all about my songs or how I play my music, but also how I interpret music.”

Evans, who paid tribute to his mentor, saxophonist Bobby Watson, on his 2010 release Faith In Action, believes firmly in honoring his influences while they are still here; a philosophy which jazz has struggled to reckon with for the last several decades.  The genre seems to be contented (for better or worse) between two musical polars: an homage-obsessed one, and the other which seems, at times, completely musically isolated.

Guitarist Mike Moreno illuminates another set of possibilities of why artists’ tunes aren’t making the rounds as they did years ago.  “Today, there are far less jazz musicians being asked to record albums within a constricted period of time by record companies. Years ago, more musicians had record contracts that required them to record more often, demanding more material. So the artists might have been looking for more material if they didn’t have enough tunes written themselves for their next date. And now, for some of us, we write far more tunes than we have a chance to record. So we always end up playing what we wrote and don’t really have time on the date or gig to play so many of our peers’ original music. But another big reason, I think, is that jazz tunes have become more labor intensive to learn. Most of the music written now by musicians of my generation requires some pretty heavy rehearsing.  And there just isn’t enough time most rehearsals to rehearse your own music, and then another person’s hard music too. It’s better to just go with a standard that everyone knows to break the monotony of reading on every song during a gig or record date. Usually after about eight original tunes the band members start to hint at, ‘Yeah, and we can just throw in some standard tunes in between these.’  There is far more reading going on, on gigs now. And since most gigs today are mostly one nighters as opposed to playing for weeks at a time at the same venue, as back in 40’s 50’s and 60’s, with less sets, the opportunity is just not there to play a wider range of repertoire on gigs. But regardless, an original tune back in the day was no more than 32 bars, with maybe an intro, then the head, solo on the melody form, head out. Now a four or five page tune is no surprise. And the road maps through the sections can be really tricky. There is only so much of that, you can put in front of the band each gig.”

Moreno recently released his stunning fourth album, Another Way (World Culture Music), which features all original compositions, but is known for his uncanny ability to interpret standards, and has released two standards albums on the Criss Cross label.  “Before the Real Books came out there was a good grace period that determined what should be in there. Classic records were already classic.  The Real Book didn’t make Monk’s music popular, for example. Who would decide what should go in the newer real books if the records haven’t had a chance to become something yet? It would be nice if there was something like it, but who would buy it? I’m not sure publishers are really interested in that. After all, who buys Real Books anyway? Students who don’t really have the ear yet to learn the tunes from recordings and also need a guide of what to learn from the history of the music, or local musicians that just play background gigs with standards that they haven’t committed to memory.  That market of consumer usually buys the first editions Real Books to learn and play the “standard standard” material at their gigs.  The more advanced musicians usually have already studied that material, and then when they do want to play more modern stuff just transcribe it themselves and write out the charts rather than spending the money on a entire book to get a few tunes out of it.  I don’t think Real Books with newer music would make very much money for publishing companies, especially with current access to artist websites, in which the artists have taken their music into their own hands.  Fans or musicians who really want a newer artist’s original sheet music can just go to that person’s website and purchase the tunes they want now, or write the artist personally saying, ‘Hey, I really love this one tune, or this record, can you send me the lead sheets?’ I get those emails all the time. But, you can’t do that to Cole Porter, Miles, Monk, or even someone still current like Wayne Shorter or Herbie.  But a lot of times my favorite tunes were not in Real Books. I always transcribed myself. It might be more profitable for publishers to just put out individual songbooks by current artists. Few already exist. But, I don’t see any publishing companies really wanting to jump at this anytime soon, maybe down the line sometime. Then it might have an effect on the scene overall, making the records of today that will end up as classics documented as such. I think it is still too early.”

It just may be.  Yet, to Moreno’s point about the way the music of Monk, for example, was already popularized pre-Real Book era, I could not help but think about why and how much of the reason had to do with community and the role musicians play in getting their peers’ music out into the world.

“If you think about it, the Real Book hasn’t changed since probably 1993,” says Evans. “I haven’t bought one in a long time, but…that’s twenty years.  In that amount of time, we’ve had some monumental records, despite what people want to think or say.  We’ve got Crazy People Music from Branford [Marsalis], we’ve got Jason Moran’s records, Robert Glasper’s records, Kenny Kirkland’s records, which came out all within that time span.  Christian McBride’s first two records, during the time when the young lions — Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton — all of them had killing records, and you don’t see hardly any of those tunes in any of the Real/Fake books.  We have to keep playing the music.  Because if you stop playing it, for the next kids who come along, there’s no book.  I mean, granted, the reality is if we’re going to deal with it musically, all the old heads would say they should be learning it by ear anyway, but I’m talking about the business of it.  We’re not represented. Two decades of music is not represented in that book.”

“There isn’t really a linear sense of the scene in terms of progression, and in terms of community,” says saxophonist John Ellis, whose southern tinged Double-Wide quintet will be a part of the Newport Jazz Festival line-up this year.  People don’t necessarily  expectantly wait for so and so’s record, like they did for Miles.  We’re not connected to that era.  The people within the scene are disconnected from each other.  And I think all of that fracturing puts people in a whole different place.  I mean, that being said, I think Terence [Blanchard] has done a great job, very similar to Blakey, of showcasing his band members’ music.  I think there are isolated instances most certainly of that: of people building community within smaller groups.  When it comes to standards, for the most part, we’re talking about the Great American Songbook.  The ideal that there was a general, cultural knowledge of this music that jazz musicians interpreted, basically everybody knew those songs.”

“I mean, when I moved here there weren’t too many incubation bands in the first place that you could learn from,” adds Pelt, sighting the importance of musicians having experience not just playing music outside of their own, but also stretching out in bands beyond their own.  “Betty Carter was still alive but was getting ill, you still had Elvin Jones, we still have Roy Haynes, so there were a handful.  But there weren’t that many bands of that calibar to where you could get in and learn something.  So even now, fast forward almost fifteen years later, it’s like well now who is there really to play with?  And it forces today’s musicians to have to come up wtih their own situations because who else are they going to play with that they’re really going to learn from?”

“With the collapse of the major record label options for jazz for most people, it has made it such that everything is so diffused and spread out and then you juxtapose that with this incredible change of everything becoming institutionalized,” says Ellis who pointed out to me through an illustration about the cultural climate of jazz when the music was in Harlem, that the audience used to play such an important role in keeping the music contemporary and popular.  This begs the question: Who is the modern musician playing for?

“I think there is definitely something about Facebook and Twitter that makes people narcissistic, or encourages there inner narcissism, like everything I’m saying and doing is so important,” says Ellis. “Social networking…there is something sort of strangely anti-social about it, but on the other hand there is real potential to organize; it’s all about how we use it, I guess.  I do think there is some tension between this crazy connectivity and access to so much information and then how kind of isolating it all is.”

I guess there’s no easy or right answer or solution to the dilemma, and in fact the subject sheds more light on just how many achilles heels our musical community is plagued from. However, I do think we could benefit from more documenting and collective publishing of modern jazz compositions.  Collectivity has always made the music what it is.  The music being more than just the sum of its parts, as NPR producer Becca Pulliam said to me in a recent interview.  I just hope that by the time my son is in college, he’s learning the music of Jason Moran alongside the music of Art Blakey.  We can’t keep using the word “modern” to describe jazz, if we’re really referring to 1965.  That being said, I think at some point, it may be worthwhile to publish an updated book of modern compositions and start creating a rightful place for our generation in the spectrum of contributions.  There’s too much at stake to be overlooked in the end.

I welcome your thoughts on the matter.

#BAM at Birdland

L-R Ben Wolfe, Marcus Strickland, Orrin Evans, Gary Bartz, Nicholas Payton and Touré

After what has been acknowledged wholly as one of the most enthralling arts and culture debates of 2011, the Nicholas Payton-inspired firestorm over a post on the trumpeter’s own blog, which challenged the use of the word “jazz” has begun to marinate in its concept and mellow in terms of its seemingly incendiary intention; evidenced by last night’s first BAM (Black American Music) conference held at Birdland jazz club in midtown. Defenses were down and ears were wide open, as Payton led a panel discussion which included pianist Orrin Evans, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Ben Wolfe and veteran altoist Gary Bartz, who has been a long-time advocate of dumping the “j-word”, as jazz was relentlessly referred throughout the evening. Befittingly moderated by Touré, music journalist, cultural critic, and author of the provocative Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness: What It Means To Be Black Now, the conversation took a hiatus from the social network cosmos, challenging cynics who may have thought this argument would be fleeing at best and fall on its face at worst.  “Just the fact that we’re all here about a word speaks of the issue that has been lurking underneath the surface for a long time,” said Payton. “This is not a new argument; this is an argument that has been had for many, many, many years. It’s just that now I feel we’re in a position to actually do something about it.”

Indeed the likes of Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Miles Davis precede Payton and panel, when it comes to the aversion to the demeaning racial connotations the term “jazz” holds.  Vince Wilburn Jr., nephew to Miles Davis, echoed his uncle’s sentiments from the audience, which also included pianist Geri Allen, author and professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, and journalist Stanley Crouch, to name a few illustrious figures who came to hear from Payton face to face.

Understanding the concept of disowning this term has been challenging on many fronts, even among fellow musicians, and many are wondering what relabeling the genre to one so broad-sounding as Black American Music can do in terms of marketing and selling product, as well as revivifying the music and its potential audience.  Others are concerned that labeling the music by race will have exclusionary consequences.  “When you study the music it becomes quite clear that it is Black American music,” Wolfe contends.  “And my question is, why is that an issue?  That’s a beautiful thing…for everybody.”  Payton underscored, questioning why no one challenges such undeniable cultural ties between Mexican people and Mariachi, or Polka and eastern Europeans, for example.

“No one is here on this panel because we’re talking about our career; this is about something I believe in,” says Evans addressing the a fore mentioned concern.  He argues instead that as artists taking such an anti-establishment stance, they have the most at stake.  “I thought my house was going to be firebombed,” he joked, referring to his allegiance to the ever-controversial Payton.  “So I don’t think anybody is out here to advance their career.”

The musicians on this panel may not be thinking career advancement per se, but there are many who are concerned with protecting theirs.  Yet as jazz struggles through an incredible identity crisis, and very low overall marketshare (some 3% of all music sales, last I checked), one has to wonder what’s to lose.  Outside of the term jazz having such deep racial connotations, it sets no clear musical indication, anyways.  Jazz can be anything from Louis Armstrong to Kenny G…from Branford Marsalis to Mary J. Blige, depending on your location (the club or the cruise ship).  So, while we don’t know what will come of the BAM movement, and there are definitely some kinks to be worked out, it certainly has everyone’s attention (Payton’s recent posts have garnered upwards of 70,000 views and counting).  That’s something we haven’t been able to say for “jazz” in quite some time.  “We’re trying to find a more suitable label for this great music that is, for the most part, identified by a very, very arbitrary and disdainful word,” said Strickland.  “That’s what we’re here for.” ♦

Nicholas Payton plays Birdland through Sunday, January 8.

Drum Composers Series Finale: Johnathan Blake

For decades, Philadelphia has boasted one of the most burgeoning jazz scenes in the world.  A thriving commorancy to legends like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, the Heath brothers, and Philly Joe Jones, to name a few, the City of Brotherly Love has been the backdrop to one of the most essential eras in jazz.  Philly remains a cornucopia of jazz heritage, producing the likes of Christian McBride, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Derrick Hodge, Rodney Green, Orrin Evans, Ari Hoenig, and Jaleel Shaw.  Drummer Johnathan Blake is at home among this esteemed group, becoming one of finest talents on his instrument, and now making his mark as a leader.

Blake will release The Eleventh Hour (licensed by Sunnyside Records) at the top of 2012.  An extraordinary debut, Blake exhibits both his breadth of chops and his uncanny compositional skills.  The all-star ensemble includes saxophonists Mark Turner and Jaleel Shaw, pianists Robert Glasper and Kevin Hays, trumpeter Tom Harrell, bassist Ben Street, and Gregoire Maret on harmonica.  The Eleventh Hour is a fine album that is splendidly unfeigned and musically abundant.  This dynamic cast of players, who are all leaders in their own rights, synergize to produces one of the best straight-ahead jazz albums I’ve heard in a very, very long time.  Blake credits the long-standing brotherhood of his band members.  “What’s great is that most of the guys that are in the band are on the record, so we had been playing together for years,” he explains.  “Rob and I have been playing together since maybe the late 90s, so he’s played mostly all that music.  Ben Street, Jaleel, Mark Turner…my homeboys.  The only newcomer was Kevin Hays.  We had played together a couple times, so for him most of the music was new and it was nice to have him be a part of this project because he brought a different sound to some of the older music, so it kind of helped us gain a different approach to our playing, so that was good.”

The Eleventh Hour is not only a well-cast, brilliantly executed album, but the repertoire is striking and distinctive. Blake penned most of the albums tunes, with the exception of a few.  The band covers Randy Newman’s “Dexter’s Tune” from the tear-jerker movie classic Awakenings.  Written for Dexter Gordon, who appeared in the movie and passed away before its release, Blake’s band captures the feel and memory of the saxophone great, with Mark Turner’s gorgeous take on the thoughtful melody.  Blake also recorded Glasper’s “Canvas”, a moody, mantra-like beauty in 5/4 that features a vibrant exchange between Maret and Glasper, with Blake’s tasteful grooves elevating the experience and Mark Turner blazing the vamp.  The album also features a blithely swinging number entitled “Blues News”, written by Blake’s long-time employer, Tom Harrell.

Blake’s compositions are equally outstanding, full of  versatile virtuosity.  Blake began writing music very early, egged on by his youth ensemble director.  “The instructor of the program pretty much required us to all write music, and we all had to bring in a tune.  When we first started out, [we were] playing standards repertoire and some Horace Silver, some John Coltrane, but then I would say when I was around twelve or thirteen, he said, ‘I want you guys to come in with a tune,’ and so that’s how I first got into it.”

Born into a musical family, Blake began his musical journey modeling after his father, John Blake Jr., a renowned jazz violinist.  Young Johnathan began playing the violin as well at age three, before moving on to piano, and then landing most assuredly on the drums.  The ASCAP Young Composers winner would benefit from his formidable years as a multi-instrumentalist.  “For me, I think starting out with violin and piano kind of helped me be more aware of melodies.  I was talking to a couple different drummers who were also like that.  Like, Brian Blade is one that comes to mind.  Oddly enough, he started on the violin also and he said that kind of helped when he’s hearing melodies.  He also takes the guitar on the road when he travels, so I think there’s something to that…when you have that luxury of being able to play a melodic instrument.  I mean, the great thing about playing piano is that you have the percussive side but also the melodic sides, so it’s like a full orchestra.  It’s pretty amazing.”

Blake acquired the tools early on, but a push from his Dad undoubtedly developed his confidence as a composer.  Blake recalls, “I remember like the first one or two compositions, my dad would help me with the notation.  Then he was like, ‘You got it…you have to figure it out.’  And that was great.”  Blake also credits the willingness of his employers to wholly share the stage, and welcome new music.  “I think the other thing that happens too is that a lot of leaders, like in Kendrick [Scott’s] case playing with Terence Blanchard, Terence is open enough where he allows the other members  of his band to start composing, so that’s another way that allows side men to start getting their composer chops up and eventually getting them on records.  I think that’s kind of helpful too, and gives that extra little push to hopefully continue this [trend].  I’ve had the luxury of working with Kenny [Barron].  I’ve had the opportunity to bring in some tunes, so it’s really great to have a leader who’s open like that, where you don’t have to necessarily play all his or her tunes.”

Blake’s compositional aptitude and superior drum skills made for a natural progression to record as a leader.  “I think a lot of it has to do with [the fact that] our role is a more supportive role, like you know, backing the band, and pushing the band or whatever,” says Blake of the recent emergence of drummers who have become front men.  “So you’re never thought of as leading a band or writing your own music.  With this music, we always have to try to reinvent ourselves so to speak, and really try to push the envelope, and always try to grow.  So I think out of that came this idea of having drummers thought of as not just sidemen or as background support, but more as like, ‘Let’s see what this guy’s doing.’”

With the decision to record out of the way, the challenges of independently financing a record in the current industry climate loomed.  Blake welcomed the task, setting up a successful campaign to help raise the funds.  Blake used IndieGoGo to get his audience’s attention and implore his fans’ support.  This new way of using funding platforms like IndieGoGo and KickStarter have proved successful for other jazz musicians like drummer Otis Brown III, and guitarist Mike Moreno.  “I think the empowering thing is really just connecting with some of the fans,” says Blake about his campaign.  “We travel all around and you don’t even think about certain people that you meet and exchange emails with and become Facebook friends with, and you go on KickStarter, and it’s like man, this person from Spain who I met ten years ago just gave me money.  So, for me, I really like that kind of exchange and connection with some of the people that I’ve met along the road, on the journey, so that’s great.”  Like that early push from his father, Blake would now have to push himself on the business side.  “Some of the challenges were…I’m not the best salesman so it’s really hard to get in that mode.  You have to push yourself and get the word out, so it’s a challenge.  I’ve really been trying too, because I’m kind of on the shyer side, so it’s hard to be asking some people [for money].  I really appreciate everybody that’s donated so far, and even the ones that can’t, they’ve really just been sending encouraging words, which is really helpful for me, because it helps me to know that I’m on the right thing.  And slowly I’m saying that OK, this has allowed me to get out of that shell and really not be afraid to sell myself so to speak, because you have to be your own manager, your own sales person and stuff like that.  So it’s like, I have to learn how to do it some time, and now with this record coming out, this is the better time than ever.  So I’m really digging it, and really reconnecting with a lot of friends that I haven’t seen since junior high or high school, who have sent money.”

As the music industry shrinks and record labels continue to fold, it has become increasingly difficult for jazz musicians to present their music, no matter how impressive their talents and credentials may be.  However, the upside to the current circumstance is a leveling of the playing field for artists who aren’t in the small pond of jazz musicians signed to major labels.  “I think there was like a period where after a lot of these record companies went under and a lot of artists – especially jazz artists — were like ‘What are we going to do, how are we going to get our music out there?,’” says Blake.  “It’s not like the “Young Lion” movement where all these cats were getting signed to Verve, and stuff.  So we caught the tail end of that but it’s like, what’s my direction now?  For me, it’s kind of like a full circle moment.  There was a movement where like people were selling their own CDs out of the trunk of their car or whatever, and marketing themselves, and I think it’s getting back to that.  I really think this is a good time for us, and I also think that because of that, it also then showcases music that we want to play, which is allowing us to be writers.  Allowing drummers to come out and write because we have this outlet.  We don’t have to necessarily play the music of Billy Strayhorn; we can play the music of E.J. Strickland, or the music of Antonio Sanchez.  Now we kind of have a say.  It’s been a long time coming.”♦

Check the Chops!

Orrin Evans: On Big Band and Taking Bigger Stands

Photo by Angelika Beener

Last week, I caught up with Orrin Evans for an interview for Alternate Takes.  The pianist, composer and band leader was in town for a gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village with his much-buzzed-about big band.  A couple of songs into the second set, Evans turns his famously hospitable energy toward the audience, as he introduces the band.  “Welcome to Captain Black Big Band.  For those of you who have read my recent Facebook rants, Captain Black is the tobacco my Dad used to smoke,” Evans defends.  “…but I am wearing a dashiki, so it can mean whatever you want it to!”

He proceeds to introduce the tune the band just played – “Captain Black.”  He then jokes encouragingly to his predominately White audience. “Come on guys, you can take it,” speaking of all of the “Black” references being tossed in their laps at lightning speed.  It is classic Orrin Evans fashion to make his audience laugh, think and cringe, all at the same time.  His honesty, though sometimes tough to hear (depending on where you’re coming from) is distinctively wrapped in warmth and convincingly well-intentioned.

Evans’ recent “Facebook rants” about Blacks mobilizing in the jazz industry in terms of an increased level of participation and ownership on the business side, among some other topics, have received some heated backlash from a few, and even apprehension to concede from some of his Black contemporaries.  For Evans, his philosophies are ingrained; the result of a household filled with robust cultural awareness and exposure, education, and a fierce intention to raise a child who was keenly aware, and secure with his identity.  “My father was Professor of African American Studies for 30 years at Trenton State College, and Professor of English at Princeton University, and I grew up in the Black arts movement because he was also a playwright.  Then I grew up with my mom who was an opera singer who came through Opera Ebony and Opera North which was the Black opera company, so in my house it was constantly ‘hold you head high.’”  When it came to the cruel names his dark-complexioned sister was taunted by, Evans reflects on his parents’ response, citing just one of the countless teachable moments that they would take advantage of throughout his upbringing.  “My father would grab all the kids in the neighborhood, and sit them on the steps and say ‘Check this out.  This is Africa and this is why there are different complexions…’  So that’s how I grew up.  So I can’t do anything different.”

Orrin Evans grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and emerged on the New York City jazz scene in the mid-90s after attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. A flourishing time for young jazz musicians, he was quickly recognized as an exceptional talent, and released his first album as a leader in 1994, and has at least ten more albums under his belt, to date.  He has dozens of recording credits, and has played with an array of jazz and popular artists like Bobby Watson, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Mos Def, Common, Dave Douglas, Brandford Marsalis, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane, and The Mingus Big Band.  He is a label executive, producer, arranger, educator and most recently, a big band director.

Posi-Tone Records

Captain Black Big Band is comprised of a combination of local and renowned jazz musicians from the Philadelphia and New York area and has included Ralph Bowen, Wayne Escoffery, Tia Fuller, Jaleel Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Brian Kilpatrick, Tim Warfield, Stafford Hunter, Frank Lacy, Brent White, Todd Marcus, Luques Curtis, Anwar Marshall, Gene Jackson, and Donald Edwards – – to name some.  The album, which bears the same name as the band, is comprised of original tunes by Evans, Ralph Peterson, Gianluca Renzi and Todd Marcus.  It is a joyous and meaningful assemblage of music, life and love, captured via live recording dates in both NYC and Philly.  I was caught off guard when Evans explained the genesis of such an ambitious project.  “The idea behind it was just boredom,” says Evans.  “That’s the truth.  Sometimes living in Philly, and that two hour commute to New York…I just wanted to do something.  And I had just gotten back from Portugal where I led this big band of college students, and I thought, wow, that was kind of fun, and I said well maybe I’ll do this during my down time in Philly. Nothing more.  But then when it started, I said this is really coming together.  And I have to admit, I married the right partner.  My wife was like alright, you’re bullshitting, we’re gonna do a record; gotta do the record.  I just did this to be doing it, and it kinda grew into something.  I called on other friends to fill in where some of the college students who were in Philly couldn’t handle.  I called Gene Jackson and Donald Edwards, and a lot of other people.  And I’ve never arranged for a big band.  And the thing is, people think that I did all these arrangements.  Charles Mingus didn’t do a lot of arrangements for his big band.  I wrote the tunes and then I was blessed to have Todd Bashore do a pile of arrangements and so the band started coming together.  And my thing is, what I’ve realized was like, New York…actually the industry…they want something to talk about.  So, here it is; Orrin Evans’ next thing.”

If you’re trying to keep up with Evans — good luck.  High on energy and ideas, he’s already working on the next big band album, as well as a new release from his group Tar Baby; a trio that includes bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.  Based on a concept from African-American folklore, Tar Baby represents a powerful message.  “I grew up with Uncle Remus.  My father, like I said, was a playwright and used to read Uncle Remus stories.  The story of the tar baby is pretty much that Br’er Rabbit wanted to trick everybody and you can grab the tar baby and you’re stuck on what is real.  So we all got into a thing that tar baby is jazz. These other musicians — black, white, purple, green — don’t wanna grab onto.  They don’t wanna get stuck on the concept that this is Black music.  So there it is, and Tar Baby was born.”

Last year, Evans also released Faith In Action, which received critical acclaim.  The album is a tribute to one of his most important mentors, Bobby Watson.  A bold and inspiring homage, Faith In Action is a strong argument for playing the music of the living; a seemingly lost tradition in jazz today.  “I’ve recorded Duane Eubanks tunes, a Chris Beck (a 20-something year old drummer from Philly) tune on my last record.  A big part of it is that I have never forgotten where I came from.  Everybody came through Bobby Watson, I don’t care who you are.  If you’re in the same age range as me — between 32 and 55 – you came up through Bobby Watson.  Frank Lacy came through Bobby Watson, Chris McBride.  Roy Hargrove; his first recording date was with Bobby Watson.  Benny Green.  I mean, I can go down the list.  Regardless of what people may think.  People may say ‘Bobby’s cool…’ and Bobby is cool.  Bobby may not be John Coltrane.  Bobby may not be Kenny Garrett; I don’t really care.  The point is, how did I get in the door?  The problem is a lot of us forget where we came from.  I remember being in the Metronome, and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker and Ralph Bowen.  And remember seeing Bilal, Robert Glasper…all of them were there checking out the music.  They’ve always been checking out the music.  They will always talk about that time.  That time meant something to them.  The problem now is a lot of younger musicians are like ‘I’m just here,’ like they’re in Star Trek and they pressed a button and they morphed here.  I cannot deny that I got in the door through Bobby Watson. He opened the door and let me in. That’s all that record was about.  Let me play his music.”

From L-R: David Gibson, Bruce Williams, Orrin Evans, Conrad Herwig, Andy Hunter, Tim Green. Photo by A. Beener

Like so many before him, Evans has kept with the tradition of not just paying homage to those pivotal figures in his life, but utilizing jazz music’s vital role as a means of social commentary with his stirring composition, “Jena 6.”  Songs like Ambrose Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Jena 6” are unfortunate reminders of the world we live in.  I asked about the importance of telling these stories in jazz.   “Now it’s important to tell the story through the music and dot-dot-dot…whatever medium that is.  And when you get the microphone and on Facebook and on Twitter, ‘cuz others need to hear that story.  You never know.  Like today is my mother’s birthday.  But that’s important for me to tell tonight because I’m 36 years old and don’t have either one of my parents.  But I still feel empowered.  So, I tell that story because someone in that audience that I’m gonna play for tonight might have lost their mother, or may have lost their father.   So it’s important for me to play “Jena 6,” because I’m telling a story just like Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.”  Just like Max, or Miles, but I can’t let it stop with playing a song.  Because sometimes you play the song and nobody knows who Orval Faubes was.  Nobody knows that he’s the dude who prevented desegregation in schools, so you have to say it, too.”

It is perhaps the “saying” that many of today’s musicians are struggling with, especially in the shrinking music industry climate.  “There’s tons of people that come to mind that are really willing to speak up.  But there’s also a lot of people that are scared.  They’re really scared because they’re all grabbing for the same thing.  There’s four booking agents, there’s four managers, and those people are in control of… you look at the top jazz people who I love and respect.  They’re like, if I wanna play there, I need to be cool with this person, so everyone is holding on to the little bit that they have.  That’s number one.  They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

For reasons understandable, Evans takes the relationships with his band mates seriously; especially off of the bandstand.  The social climate seems to suggest that bringing up truthful points — not opinion — is enough for an artist to be labeled with unfair and assumed agendas or platforms.  For Evans’ supporters (or supporters of any other Black jazz musician that dare have a mind to speak), there is an understanding that there may be consequence for any level of an agreeable attitude.  To illustrate, two artists (whose names will not be mentioned here) have had their record labels contacted, and were specifically asked not to comment on Evans’ Facebook comments.  Though Evans’ fans and supporters far outweigh the few who are taking issue, the horror of what that kind of action symbolizes in the grand scheme of things is worthy of the dedication of an entirely separate post.  But for Evans, it is quite simple.  “My lead alto player calls me an hour before you got here and couldn’t make it [for the Zinc Bar gig tonight].  So I’m thinking, is there a shortage of lead alto players in New York?  No.  Is there a shortage of lead alto players that are comfortable with my rants on Facebook?  That have known me, known my wife, are familiar with my kids, and know where I’m coming from?  Yes.  So I’m like, shit.”  Of course, Evans gets his altoist before the end of our time together, but his point is well taken.  “I just need family around me.  I wanna look at every person on that bandstand, and they know me.  They know my family.  That’s really important to me.  Not just ‘cuz you the baddest cat.  I can call the baddest cat.  We all can.”

On his way back from Texas to New York to meet me for this interview, Evans’ described his appreciation for the flood of phone calls and text messages he received from an array of jazz industry figures as he walked through Newark airport.  For Evans, the abundance of messages of hopes that he’ll continue to do this all important — if sometimes unpopular — enlightening, is motivation enough.

In terms of music, Evans is proving to be more prolific than ever.  Recently placing in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll in the Big Band category, and releasing the gorgeous and relentlessly swinging Freedom (Posi-Tone) and several projects coming down the pike, Evans is still one of jazz music’s top contenders. ♦