The most important thing that happened on May 3, 1965 was the very first use of a geospatial satellite to relay broadcast transmissions — an innovation that would ultimately transform the world and the way we see ourselves in it. However much his fans would swear otherwise, the birth of singer Patrick Evan McMillan must still rank a distant second, in terms of prominence, though the impact he’s made in his sphere has been almost equally decisive.
Patrick Evan has been singing in musical groups around Northeast Florida for nearly 20 years, in the process becoming an epicentric figure on the scene, one of those common threads linking this region’s diverse and decentralized talent pool. Probably no other musician has introduced more musicians to each other — often right onstage, mere moments before a show starts.
In a career now deep into its third decade, Patrick Evan has appeared on a number of recordings by artists on every level of the music industry, and released albums by groups he’s worked in like Aerial Tribe, Big Band Theory and Spooney. But, remarkably, 2012’s “Soul Power” is the first album ever released under his own name. That small shift in branding is part the broader, deeper transition into middle age and what could be considered the third phase of his career.
“Soul is something that comes from an expression of the past that we carry in our gene pool,” he says, by way of definition, “meaning struggle, you know, jazz, rap, Southern rock particularly.” It’s a good album, and highly-anticipated by music fans in Northeast Florida and elsewhere. More importantly for our purposes, the song titles are perfect jumping-off points for a more detailed discussion of the artist.
“Top Lock” opens the album. It’s also the lead single, and the first of several songs made into videos by Rebecca Miller, part of a family of art patrons, and herself an artist working in digital animation. “I’m her guinea pig,” he says. The video’s bare-bones style (http://bit.ly/K4q4VD) gives it a whimsical touch, while keeping the focus of the music. Miller also made a video for “Higher Fire,” (http://bit.ly/ITDZLB) but Evan’s vibe is perhaps best captured in his impromptu performance of the Ray Charles classic “I’ve Got A Woman” with Clark Creamer and Paul Miller(http://bit.ly/K4pO8Y).
Patrick Evan McMillan was born in the Grand Park section of Jacksonville’s Northside on May 3, 1965. His father died just three days later. Arthur Myles McMillan was a singer himself, a soloist in the chorus at the historic Bethel Baptist Church downtown and a boyhood friend of Pastor Rudolph McKissick Sr., whose own son now tends that particular flock. “For a man who had his faults, his character was impeccable,” the elder McKissick told him, years later.
Like so many creative artists, Arthur Myles battled the bottle for years; the demon liquor pushed his diabetes over the top. With his youngest son eight months in utero, Myles McMillan fell into a diabetic coma from which he never emerged, dying in the same hospital where his son was born. The father and son never met, never even saw each other’s faces. While that obviously had an effect on our subject, it’s impossible to figure exactly how. Ultimately, Patrick Evan can be counted as proof of the old cliché that “It takes a village to raise a child”.
He was the youngest of nine kids; the older ones were teenagers when he was born, and provided the boy his introduction to what has become his life’s work — and, for that matter, his life. His first record was a gift, age nine: “Rags To Rufus,” by the funk band Rufus, which included the hit song “Tell Me Something Good,” written by Stevie Wonder and made unforgettable by Rufus’ frontwoman Chaka Khan. The group remains a primary musical influence. “I remember my sister teaching me dance routines — she was 16 — to Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect,’” he recalls. “I wanted to do a CD that was representing different sounds I grew up on.” The result is “Soul Power,” a recording whose influences range from James Brown and Parliament to reggae and jazz to “Schoolhouse Rock” and Walt Disney soundtracks.
“Because Of You”
That week of his birth was, no doubt, unspeakably difficult for Patrick Evan’s mother, who was born Vera Parrish in April 1931. Rarely is childbirth the least-painful thing to happen in a given week; less rarely is a woman able to bear such pain and persevere, with no external signs of depression or dysfunction. But Vera Parrish McMillian was a Duval Girl, old-school, a child of “hustlers” from an era long-gone. By the time her youngest child was born, Vera McMillan had already lost two — a daughter, 10, and a two-year-old son — to an outbreak of polio that hit this region in the 1950s. Her name, Vera, is Russian for “faith,” another example of why names matter, and why faith matters, too. She died just short of her 60th birthday, in 1991; she beat breast cancer, but cervical cancer killed her.
By that point, Patrick was in New York, working with Mariah Carey. He’s billed as “Patrique McMillan” (his given name is Patrick Evan McMillan) on Carey’s 1991 album “Emotions” and her 1992 release, “MTV Unplugged,” which together sold some 14 million copies worldwide; some of his stuff also ended up on “No. 1’s,” Carey’s first compilation album in 1998, which moved 17 million units. As part of her touring group, Evan worked “Soul Train,” “The Arsenio Hall Show” and the American Music Awards. He even attended Carey’s ill-fated wedding to label boss Tommy Mottola.
Almost reluctantly, Evan pulls out a photo album from that era, and it’s like stepping into a time-capsule. He’s got pictures with people like Al B Sure, Color Me Badd, Lisa Lisa, Coolio, James Ingram, Natalie Cole, Wilson Phillips, and Diana Ross. My favorites: 1) Patrick Evan shirtless in a club, flanked by Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Gibson; 2) Him on a couch, covered by Carey (we should all be so lucky). He also claims to have helped old friend and fellow Marleyite Lauryn Hill book her first recording session, in the background of a Mica Paris record. This is the kind of stuff a lesser man would be a big deal of, but he wields that album like most people would their prom photos.
The last song on “Soul Power” was written for a woman who was there from the very beginning of his career. Patrick Evan cites Chaka Khan as his single-greatest musical influence — his first record was one of hers, and she was one of his first major contacts in New York. While her name pops up repeatedly at intersections along the musical road he’s traveled, it’s perhaps ironic that she also precipitated the biggest mistake he ever made in the business, by inviting him to one of her shows. Problem was, he had a studio gig that same night, and his plans to do both were imperiled by equipment issues. Eventually he just left and went to the show — and got himself effectively blackballed from the studio scene. He continues working with Carey, but as she changed her sound leading into the “Daydream” album, he became expendable.
“It’s All Right”/ “Open Arms”
The second phase of Patrick Evan’s career began upon returning to Jacksonville, chastened but still hungry to perform. There’s simply no way to list all of the musicians Patrick Evan has worked with, name all the names his bands have been billed under and all the places they have played, but suffice it to say coming home, he’s performed with at least 100 different musicians, with about three dozen at the core of his best working bands — Soul Heads, Big Band Theory, Ariel Tribe, Color Blind, Co-Alition. VibElement had a long residency at Partners in Avondale (now The Brick); Patrick Evan and the Starlite House Band held down Wednesday nights there for a couple years; Co-Alition helped open up Elevated Avondale, above the Blue Fish. His bands have been a fixture at Burrito Gallery since almost the beginning, especially during ArtWalk, which together usually equate to heavy business. Unfortunately, most of these shows were never recorded, a frequent and lamentable error among musicians.
Evan’s most talked about gig may have been Ariel Tribe’s run at the Voodoo on Forsyth Street at the turn of the century; “Soul Head Sundays” featured his band up front, DJ Therapy (Paten Locke) spinning hip-hop in the back room, and a motley crew ranging from club kids to hustlers to Jaguars players. Ani Difranco came to watch one night; Chaka Khan sat in on drums on another. The club known simply as 618 was rolling hard back then, just across Forsyth Street, and people went back and forth; the intersection held more trouble than just the traffic. Fellas frying fried food from their trucks would take home more money than most people did in a week (worth every penny). The Greyhound station was a block over, and passengers would stop in on their layover and stay for, like, a year, while others would leave the club, go buy a ticket, leave and never come back — and both for pretty sensible reasons.
The Soul Head concept originated as a group Patrick had with Jamie Bailey and Michael K. Williams, a multitalented actor/musician/dancer/ best-known for playing Omar Little on “The Wire” and Chalky White on “Boardwalk Empire.” He later held court at the “Soul House” in San Marco, a musical and spiritual salon frequented by folks like Aliade Bryan, Big Band Theory leader Caron Marcelous, bassist Travis Morton, producer Mo Ricks and others; “Soul Head Sunday” was their attempt to transfer that heady vibe to the stage.
Perhaps the only thing Evan likes as much as singing is talking about singing. About the late Whitney Houston, he says, she “was like Mt. Shasta. She ain’t just big — she’s got UFO activity coming in and out of her. To me, that was how unique her voice was. People sound like her, she doesn’t sound like anybody else.” The discussion moves to other favorites like Billie Holiday, Mariah, Dinah Washington and, of course, Skynyrd.
Evan’s current duet partner singer/guitarist Bert Mingea: “I want to hear more crazy-ass melodies, like I’m learning in these jazz standards. Why don’t I hear more melodies like these?” Patrick: “We’ve got to write them! The universe is giving us a great opportunity.”
“My Mind Keeps Changing”
It’s a different Patrick Evan displayed on “Soul Power.” Longtime fans — and this writer, for the record, is one having seen him sing at least 200 times over the years — should not come expecting 20-minute jams on gems like “Pusher Man” and “Superman Lover,” nor intensive instrumental runs while the leader walks around greeting people, like a preacher welcoming people to church. The experience can border on religious; his bands are about holding down that groove and stacking layers upon it. It’s a sound designed to defy distractions and background noise with enough power to cut through the fog induced by the kind of drinking cats get done in Duval, yet smooth enough to keep the girls dancing all night.
This album keeps things tighter than — well, you can imagine. No song clocks in over 4:38, and none below 2:58. The energy expended so expansively in the live setting is focused inward and wrapped around the melodies, all composed by the singer and his colleagues. He straddles genres like Rush Limbaugh on a question of morality. While the album is notable for the absence of singer/guitarist Bert Mingea and drummer Josh Green, nearly two dozen others do appear.
“Soul Power” originated with a phone call from former Ariel Tribe drummer Ryan LeRoy, who now produces records of his own. It took over a year to record, in part because of Evan’s exacting nature, in part because there’s a different lineup on each track. The album features guitarists Jesse Cruce, Eric Herrin and Jeremy Kairalla; bassists Ian Kelly, Jared May, Shawn Tillis and Stan Piper (whom I call “Godzilla” for his large hands and commanding presence on the bandstand); guys like Teddy McClellan, Will Montgomery, Mike Spotswood and Paul Creel on piano, keyboard, clavinet and Fender Rhodes; a horn section that includes reedmen Kenny Hamilton, Richard Payne and Adam Evans, and trumpters Alex Maetos, Jason Anderson and Mike Spotswood. Backing vocals are provided by Rain Wilson (an old friend dating back before the New York years) and Jessica Gay, who can be seen dancing at almost every gig; she is always there with bells on, literally. LeRoy handles most of the percussive duties, augmented by Montgomery and the brilliant Dorian Lopez.
The title originated from a comment by DJ Mat Smith of the Hater Free crew, with whom he performed several times last year. “When I finished writing the song, I realized that it was really inspired by a song I heard on the Disney album called ‘Jungle Fever,’ when I was a kid. I wish I could find a copy, but I could sing it down right now. You don’t realize how much this stuff inspires you.”
Few songs evoke a particular mood as ably as this one, with its walking bass and sleazy, back-alley horns. It almost conveys menace, but not quite, for Patrick Evan’s music is about love — love of self, love of other people, love of nature, love of love for its own sake. He makes music for dancing to, especially the women.
“Child Of Life”/“Higher Fire”
In Patrick Evan’s personal musical pantheon, Bob Marley ranks nearly as high as Chaka Khan herself, but for him the music is less important than Marley’s moral code, which reinforced the impact of his art and helped it resonate within diverse cultures — much like an even earlier influence, Bruce Lee. Evan long planned to become a martial artist before the call of music drew him to New York instead of Los Angeles. For him, as for millions of others, Marley’s graceful manner always stood out in a genre traditionally defined by violence and tragedy, and his calm under pressure struck him as something worth emulating.
Evan wore a loose box-fade in New York, with a spit-curl. He’d grown dreadlocks by the time his bands started working Duval; we sometimes joke that, when we first met, he had hair and I did not. The shearing of his locks, a few years ago, was a cultural event that, at first, had his friends a little worried. Losing the locks, which he threw into the St. Johns, helped inaugurate the next phase of his career, which “Soul Power” documents.
In performance, “Child Of Life” often turns up as a down-tempo digression in the middle of “Higher Fire.” It’s a surprise to hear that mentioned, because that serendipitous linkage was purely accidental, as will happen in largely-improvised contexts. If any song could be singled out as an anthem for the circles that coalesce around him, it would be this; people tend to start cheering from the first notes. It’s definitely one of the best songs ever written about Moses.
Patrick Evan currently alternates between the family home in Grand Park and the place where the third phase of his career has developed. The “Goodwin Café” is actually the residence of his friend Jason Counter, which he shares with Haitian-born painter Overstreet Ducasse. Patrick moved into the room vacated by artist/musician Clark Creamer, who introduced him to Counter and Ducasse. “Clark Creamer is like glue — he brings people together”, he says. Goodwin Café has become a salon of sorts for his circles, where new projects are thought up and developed over rum, cigarettes and beer. “This is the first time I’ve lived with people who are so good with their hands.”
Evan’s refined approach to his own artistry has been adopted by the restless talents he surrounds himself with; their hustle reinforces his own, and vice-versa. He’s learning slowly to be more aggressive about business, those tedious, tiresome technical matters that most musicians eschew, to their detriment. Patrick’s peers from the New York days, many of whom should be millionaires today but aren’t, have shared the kinds of horror stories only Tribe Called Quest fans can truly appreciate. For Evan’s part, money’s always an issue. He’s washed dishes at Metro Diner, flipped meat at Jenkins BBQ, even did some house-painting.
At the same time, he’s taken a renewed interest in his role as a role model, stepping up his involvement with the community. Patrick Evan has always been fascinated with the “Red Caps”, a group of people who cleaned up Northside streets in the old days, and has sought to carry its values into the 21st century. He adopted a section of Kings Road and cleaned it himself, lugging trash bags on his bike. He also began volunteering at the historic Clara White Mission, with the St. Johns Riverkeeper and the city’s “Clean It Up, Green It Up” program. His efforts were recognized with a “Keep Jacksonville Beautiful” award from Mayor Peyton at his Environmental Luncheon in May 2010.
With his 47th birthday coming this May 3, Patrick Evan has the physical and mental health of a man half his age, thanks mainly to extensive bicycling. The ride from Goodwin Café to Grand Park — which he makes at all times of day or night, in summer or winter, in sideways rain or heat-stroke weather — is the definition of hardcore. If you can make that ride, you’re not someone to be accosted, put it that way. Unless you’re a young musician, looking for a gig, it’s best just to leave him be.
Watch a video of Evan performing at last week’s Art Walk at folioweekly.c