Orrin Evans Has Been Playing Jazz for Years. So Why Is He a Rising Star?
Sept. 21, 2018
The New Vanguard
“I always had a drive not only to compose but to be a bandleader,” said Orrin Evans, who has been based for most of his career in Philadelphia.Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times
PHILADELPHIA — When the renowned power trio the Bad Plus announced in 2017 that Orrin Evans would come aboard, replacing its founding pianist Ethan Iverson after nearly 18 years, it was a moment to stop and wonder. No one expected this. But why did it seem to make such devilish sense?
In some ways the news marked a kind of arrival for Mr. Evans. At 43, based for most of his career in Philadelphia, he had never been on the cover of a major jazz magazine, and all of his roughly 25 albums as a leader have come out on small labels. He has spent over two decades stubbornly committed to his own vision as a musician and community leader, but he’s never been fully accepted as a marquee bandleader, perhaps because of his proudly unpretentious persona.
Still, his arrival might have been an even bigger blessing for the Bad Plus. Though under-hyped, Mr. Evans is a viable candidate for jazz’s most resourceful and invigorating contemporary pianist. He is probably the closest heir we have to Geri Allen — the first postmodern piano master in jazz, who died last year at 60 — and a homier counterpart to the pianist Jason Moran, a MacArthur fellow and leading figure in improvised music.
In DownBeat magazine’s annual critics poll this year, Mr. Evans, propelled by the Bad Plus hype, won the “Rising Star” award among pianists. It was a victory with a sour aftertaste: He already has decades of work behind him, and by now is considered an elder statesman by a fleet of younger musicians.
Sorting through a sheaf of old musical scores in the dim light of his basement on a recent evening, Mr. Evans puzzled at the DownBeat accolade. “I’m not looking down on it, but I’m just like: If I had waited on you, I’d have been a falling star,” he said, addressing the critical establishment. “There was no way I was going to wait on you to tell me when I’m a star.”
The Bad Plus — a collective trio lugging almost two decades of its own history behind it, with an arm’s-length relationship to the black musical tradition — would seem a strange vessel of deliverance for Mr. Evans. But he has adapted quickly, and has made gentle adjustments to the band’s approach, rearranging the furniture if not knocking down entire walls.
At his first New York show with the group, at the Blue Note in May, playing “1972 Bronze Medalist,” an old standby composed by the drummer Dave King, Mr. Evans pumped a mercurial sway into the piece’s chunky, heavy-knit chords. Still, he wasn’t softening or smoothing things down: His right hand kept a loopy, almost inebriated feel as it traced the odd melody, and he pulled Mr. King and the bassist Reid Anderson even more deeply into their caustic groove.
Mr. Evans at his home, which has long been a kind of community gathering place.Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times
“He has such astonishing technique and touch that he always makes my music sound better,” Mr. King said in an interview. “A lot of my music from the old book has been reborn under Orrin.”
Since the mid-1990s, Mr. Evans has led a range of outstanding bands, composing and recording nonstop while also mentoring scores of younger musicians. The home he shares with Dawn Warren Evans, his wife and creative partner, has long been a kind of community gathering place. Meanwhile, he’s kept up a busy touring schedule as a side musician for artists like David Murray and Sean Jones. And he also continues to play here and there with Tarbaby, an all-star trio featuring the bassist Eric Revis and the drummer Nasheet Waits, which has an impressive new album on the way.
The most representative project of Mr. Evans’s personal ethic is his Captain Black Big Band, a Philadelphia-based group that’s a family as much as an ensemble. On Friday, the Smoke Sessions label released “Presence,” the band’s third album. Captain Black grew out of a weekly residency at Chris’ Jazz Café 10 years ago, and the new album features live recordings from Chris’ and another Philadelphia club, South.
“When we started the band, we weren’t making much money, but the energy was so great in the room each weekend,” Mr. Evans said. “That’s what’s really important about this band: Not just the people on the bandstand, but the people in the audience.”
On “Presence” the group has slimmed down from 17 pieces to nine, allowing it a looser, more rugged range of motion while still illuminating the layers of harmonic fortification that Mr. Evans builds into his music. And the music is not just his own: Half of the tunes on “Presence” were composed by other band members.
“The charts are movable, which is really important,” Mr. Evans said. “Everybody is like, ‘All right, well let’s try this. Let’s open this section up.’ No one’s saying, ‘Don’t mess up my tunes!’ Everybody’s amenable to change.”
Mr. Evans was born in Trenton, N.J., in 1975, and moved to Philadelphia as a child. His mother, Frances Gooding, was an opera singer, and his father, Don Evans, was a well-known playwright and professor. In grade school Orrin took lessons from musicians around Philadelphia, then spent a couple of years studying jazz at Rutgers University, but eventually dropped out.
He was interested in a liberated approach, unconcerned with the divide between the free-improvising avant-garde and Philadelphia’s more soul-adjacent straight-ahead-jazz world. He never quite found a teacher who could give him the full spectrum, so he went his own way.
“Some of the older people I met in Philly, they were very supportive, but they also didn’t know how to deal with me. I understand that now, because I was on a different track,” he said. “I always had a drive not only to compose but to be a bandleader.”
He added: “If it wasn’t for my mother and particularly my father, I don’t know if I would have continued down that track.”
By the mid-1990s, when he began releasing records under his own name on the Criss-Cross imprint, Mr. Evans’s style had cohered into something commanding and distinctive. On early albums like “Captain Black” (a small-group effort, not with the big band) and “Deja Vu,” he offered magnetic up-tempo compositions and plangent ballads, usually with a hint of melancholy at every speed.
At first, it can be easy to hear his playing and think you’re listening to a mainline jazz musician — perhaps a close acolyte of the post-bop doyen Cedar Walton. But that’s missing Mr. Evans’s vast library of personal innovations. One signature is his way of riding a fast swing feel, bustling to the point of bursting, its momentum built of weight more than speed. Often he’ll land on an ostinato pattern, repeating an insistent phrase until it becomes its own song. Then there’s his way of lacing harmonies together, giving a subtle emphasis to a single note within each chord. By shining a light on particular tones, he makes his juicy-red clusters of harmony feel crisp and narrative.
And when Evans veers outward, toward a free-jazz style, he never seems to be going for esotericism or abstraction. If he delivers a scalding smash of dissonance, it’s because he’s offering a clear message that just happens to contain a ton: blistering energy, power, pathos, optimism and frustration.
It all springs from experience. When it became clear in the late 1990s that no big label intended to pick him up, Mr. Evans and Mrs. Evans — an occasional vocalist who serves as her husband’s manager, as well as holding down a full-time job — decided to found Imani Records, and put out his music themselves.
“He’s always been an entrepreneur — so he’s always been self-employed,” Mrs. Evans said. But most of his activity is communitarian, and a lot of it centers on mentorship. “His phone just rings all day with people needing advice,” she said, “whether it’s on marriage or music or relationships or parenting.”
This year, the couple restarted Imani Records, which had been dormant for about 10 years. This time the plan is to use the label to promote younger musicians’ work. One of its first new albums will be from Jonathan Michel, a bassist who spent the early years of his professional career in Philadelphia.
He’s one of many young musicians who describe Mr. Evans’s influence as formative. “I saw Orrin asserting himself to make sure that the music is staying alive and still appreciated,” Mr. Michel said, recalling Mr. Evans booking concert series at local restaurants, and leading educational events at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.
“You feel it on and off the bandstand,” Mr. Michel added. “He would just invite me over to come eat at his house. It had nothing to do with music, but just with community and family, which has everything to do with music.”
Articles in this series examine jazz musicians who are helping reshape the art form, often beyond the glare of the spotlight.
Orrin Evans will perform with the Captain Black Big Band at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Monday, playing sets at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.; 212 258-9595, jazz.org/dizzys