One Track Mind: Orrin Evans, "Jena 6 " (2011)

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by Nick DeRiso

Turns out, it actually does mean a thing, even if it ain’t got that swing.

For something like 80 years now, that old Duke Ellington cliche worked as the clarion call of big band music, but its mantra has also become its curse. Subsequent generations moved on to genres with more complexity, a challenge that Orrin Evans‘ new Captain Black Big Band accepts, and then inhabits.

In fact, the album defiantly shucks off the bow-tied fox-trotting boilerplate of old. Nowhere is that more true than this tune, as Evans and Co. musically recall a racially charged 2007 incident at a high school in this sleepy Louisiana village that eventually led to consumptive demonstrations of emotion, and national headlines. Appropriately, “Jena 6” transforms, in the space of a few moments, from this gospel-tinged solo into an unhinged outpouring of seething rage.

Composer and arranger Evans, who also calls his group the Captain Black Big Band, opens the tune with a stoic piano interlude by Neal Podgurski, recalling those familiar black-and-white newsreel struggles at lunch counters, bus stops and on the other end of fire hoses. But he isn’t about to settle for the staid heroism of that image, even if that’s what’s so thoroughly expected. When a funereal smattering of horns finally joins in, the crowd at New York City’s Jazz Gallery seems tempted to applaud, only to pause and think better of it. There is this catharsis in those devastating wails — but not the joyous kind. As the larger group joins in, “Jena 6” takes on a swaying, atmospheric grief, and you’re reminded of how this whole thing started.

Six African-American teenagers were initially charged in adult court with attempted murder and conspiracy charges in the beating of a white classmate in Jena, Louisiana, an incident that followed months of racial tensions in the town of about 3,000 people. Subsequently called the Jena 6, their case drew national attention from civil rights groups that said the charges were excessive, and more than 15,000 people turned out for a September 2007 rally on the teens’ behalf. The charges were eventually reduced, but not before the town became a symbol of the issues that linger between blacks and whites.

It’s a complex, unresolved, punishing memory, the kind that leaves a residue of flammability. The full measure of that is revealed as altoist Jaleel Shaw steps forward on this, the closing track for Captain Black Big Band, just out on Posi-Tone Records. At first, he’s insular and thought provoking, then he’s charging forward — echoing the turbulent emotions that welled up toward an eventual outburst. Evans’ group provides striking symphonic blasts, like gun fire, as Shaw delves deeper. By the end of his excursion, more than five minutes later, Shaw has descended past a blur of fear, and into a singing fury.

The song finds, in its conclusion, something that’s towering, nearly apocolyptic, and appropriately so. Evans and Co. don’t so much pull Shaw back into a concluding musical signature — something so blandly typical of jazz music in general, and of big-band music specifically — as launch him into a searing, otherworldly, nearly out of control series of aggressive, non-linear ruminations. He sounds very much like a clinched fist.

“Jena 6,” difficult to listen to but yet reflective of the disquiet surrounding that event, is perfectly unsettling. And a perfect example of what big band music can still be.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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