Q&A with Orrin Evans: The Bad Plus’ New Addition

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Orrin Evans (pictured) has been named the newest member of The Bad Plus, replacing outgoing pianist and founding member Ethan Iverson. (Photo: Courtesy the artist)

Lineup changes are nothing new in jazz, where the model has generally been a bandleader and their ever-evolving group of sidemen. Since forming in 2000, though, The Bad Plus has insisted on maintaining a distinct group identity—not only retaining the same members (pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King), but refusing to even play a gig if any one of the three was unavailable.

Which made it all the more shocking when the news broke last month that Iverson was leaving and that Orrin Evans would be stepping in to replace him, adding a Philly accent to the Minneapolis-bred trio.

During a week in which he was playing musical chairs in a variety of bands for the inaugural Philadelphia Jazz Festival, Evans took a break at South Kitchen and Jazz Parlor to share his side of the story with DownBeat.

Overall, how do you feel about stepping into this role?

I’m nervous, which is something I don’t get too often. Not because I’m “that good” or anything—it’s just that, for the majority of my career, I’ve been in control. Tarbaby and Luv Park were collectives, and now I’m joining another collective, but one that’s been in existence for 17 years.

Honestly, one of the things that helps me curb some of this nervousness is the fact that I know Reid and Dave are really good human beings. I also respect their musicianship, and they wouldn’t have called me unless they knew who they were calling. But still, I want to pay homage to the history that they have as a band. How many bands can you say have been around for 17 years? Walking into that is very intimidating, but I welcome that opportunity to grow and evolve.

Are you uneasy at all about stepping into Ethan Iverson’s place?

As a fellow piano player I was glad I was able to talk to Ethan, and to not only get his blessing but his encouragement. One of the first texts he sent me basically said, “I can’t wait to hear the band with you.” That was great to hear coming from not just another piano player, but the person who held the seat for 17 years. And not only did he hold the seat—he’s the original. He is the seat. But he didn’t come with anything but support, love and encouragement.

This might seem out of the blue to some observers, but you go very far back with the band, especially Reid Anderson.

My mother used to throw parties for everything, and when she threw a party for my sister’s graduation in 1991 or ’92 she asked me to put together a band to play. The bass player I went to high school with couldn’t make it so I called [Philadelphia Clef Club director] Lovett Hines and he said, “You need to call this guy Reid Anderson,” who was at Curtis Institute and hanging out around the Clef Club.

I’ll never forget picking Reid up in my ’79 Monte Carlo. Reid is only two years older than me, but when you’re in the 11th grade, and [the other person] is in college, that’s a big leap. So I was trying not to say anything nerdy and was listening to a certain record that I really enjoyed that I won’t mention. I’m blasting it like I got hip stuff on, and asked Reid, “Man, you like this record?” And Reid said, “I think it sucks.” I was crushed, but years later I figured out everything he meant, I understood it, and I actually agreed with it. That was my first experience with Reid Anderson, and from that we remained friends, he was in my wedding, and through him I met Dave King and Ethan Iverson.

There are plenty of reasons to be nervous, but what excites you about this new step?

Music. Love. Communion. Fellowship. All around joy. What happens on the bandstand none of us will know until that day. We’ll probably get together and rehearse a few more times, which is great, but until we play that first note in front of a group of people we don’t know what’s going to happen on that level. But what I do know is that I truly love Reid Anderson, and my love for Reid Anderson has extended to my love for Ethan Iverson and Dave King. And then my love for them has extended to my love for The Bad Plus.

So whatever I do on that day is going to probably and hopefully pay homage to the 17 years that they’ve already established, with a little sprinkle of myself that will become more and more of a sprinkle until after a while it becomes a part of all three of us.

What are you hoping to bring to the band?

After almost 20 years of marriage, I’m just now discovering some of what my wife needs, and she’s discovering some of what I need. That’s the journey every day. On that day in 1999 I didn’t know exactly what she needed, but I had to believe that I was the person to give her what she needed. So right now I honestly have to believe that I’m the person to give The Bad Plus what they need. I’m not aware of what they really need—they may not need anything—but I’m joining it so I need to figure out what my role is and day by day I’ll figure out what they need. And what I need.

While they’ve done a wide range of repertoire over the years, TBP will always be known for their irreverent takes on classic rock songs and other unusual material. Have you been thinking about ways you can contribute to that approach?

I had to stop myself from thinking about that. The first thing you think is, “Oh wow, they did ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ maybe I can bring this.” One of my favorite artists is Grover Washington Jr., and his tune “Let It Flow” is pretty much how I’m thinking about this. I’m just going to let it flow wherever it goes and see what happens.

If it ends up being, “Hey man, I’ve got this Roberta Flack tune that I think would be real hip,” or this David Bowie tune, or this Sade tune, that’s cool too. But I’m going to let the music tell me when it’s time for that. Right now, I just want to get to know who I am around Reid and Dave.

You’re no stranger to social media. Have you been watching the reaction to the news?

I’ve seen some of it. I remember on The Jeffersons, there was one Lionel and they came back and suddenly there was a different Lionel. As a fan of The Jeffersons, I remember those moments. I remember the first Lionel and I liked the first Lionel. But I had to get with the fact that whatever happened that had nothing to do with me, I had to deal with whoever the new person was if I was a fan of the TV show. I had to deal with the new Lionel, no matter what, because I was a fan of The Jeffersons.

Everything I’ve seen on social media about what’s about to happen leads to everybody’s love for the first Lionel. The first is great. The second one is just as great. And that’s what I want to get across to everyone. I’m just going to try to be as good as the first Lionel. DB


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October 2017
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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