Orrin Evans: Go For It!


Ravi Coltrane says that Orrin Evans, above, “can reach that spirit.”

(Photo: John Rogers)

On an early summer night in newly vaccinated New York, the Blue Note was packed with cheering clubgoers. And pianist Orrin Evans, coming off the first set, was, in his understated way, one of them.

True, the set had had its unsettling moments, among them a rumbling protest by Evans’ food-deprived stomach, an underamplified piano and a spottily lit stage that threatened to dampen what was the Ravi Coltrane Quartet’s post-COVID return to the Big Apple.

But the group seemed to feed off the snafus — no one more than Evans, a coolly commanding figure who alternately thundered and threaded his way through tunes by Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker. Now, affixed to a stool at the bar between sets, he was seeking sustenance and pondering the totality of a musician’s plight.

“Sometimes you’re fighting the elements,” he said, downing a drink. “You can give up or you can turn it up and go for it.”

Evans has been going for it for most of his 46 years. Sometimes that has meant running from it — specifically, he said, the specter of McCoy Tyner, another powerful Philadelphia pianist to whom he has been compared countless times. That association has only been strengthened by Evans’ longtime connection with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of the jazz icon who famously led the trailblazing quartet of which Tyner was an integral part.

If Evans is like Tyner, the similarity is reflected less in his choice of notes than in an ineffable quality that allows him, by his mere presence, to raise the game of those around him. That is why, when Tyner died on March 6 of last year, Coltrane recruited Evans to play the next night on a Tyner tribute — a high-flying affair that became one of the last performances on the Blue Note stage before the COVID lockdown.

“He can reach that spirit,” Coltrane said.

Evans’ spirit has infused his COVID-era activities. His livestream series serves as a perfect example. Run weekly from the patio of his home or, on rainy days, from a studio in nearby Glendale, Pennsylvania, the series provided a reliable link to inspired musicmaking and the occasional lesson in adaptability. One set, at the studio on a Sunday before the Blue Note gig, found Evans forced to make do with the available electric piano — a category of instrument he professed to “despise” playing — adjusting his touch to conjure two hours of sonorous display.

The series has not come cheap; the Glendale set required securing the space and the services of talents like vibraphonist Warren Wolf, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Clarence Penn. Nonetheless, Evans said, he has strived to make the sets available for free, even as he acknowledged that, with voluntary donations declining as venues reopen, the series would likely end this summer.

While running this series, Evans has played at others. Notably at Smalls, the Greenwich Village basement that turned to a nonprofit model to keep the music going. Though the space was closed to the wider public during the lockdown livestreams, Evans appeared at one at which trombonist David Gibson, a stalwart of his Captain Black Big Band, dropped in. Instrument in hand, he enlivened the subterranean party — and kept the big-band connection alive.

But the peak of Evans’ livestream efforts may have been a two-night marathon at Smoke, the cozy room on upper Broadway operated by Paul Stache, who also runs the Smoke Sessions recording label, on which Evans’ recent albums have been released. The two nights, in December, have yielded The Magic Of Now, a seven-track collection.

During a Zoom call, Evans said turning the livestream into an album was an afterthought: “It’s so hard to have a conversation about this record as a record when it wasn’t ever supposed to be a record. This was truly a party, an opportunity in the middle of the pandemic to get together and play some music with some humans — something that wasn’t happening in that time.”

For the livestream, Evans enlisted two veterans, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart, and 23-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. Not long out of Juilliard, Wilkins’ star had been rapidly rising with the release four months earlier of his acclaimed debut album, Omega (Blue Note). But Evans said he first met Wilkins more than a decade ago, when the saxophonist was a participant in youth programs run by the Kimmel Center and Clef Club in Philadelphia.

“What impressed me about Immanuel was how mature he was, his sense of fashion and the way he carried himself,” Evans said.

For his part, Wilkins, in a phone interview, recalled Evans as a constant figure in the lives of local aspiring musicians: “He was just always kind of around as somebody who was doing stuff with our heroes and was one of our heroes. He was kind of our connection to any of that.”

In 2016, when Wilkins arrived in New York, Evans offered him work in his well-regarded Smoke series, Philly Meets New York. The gig, Wilkins said, introduced him to Evans’ first-take mentality; “I didn’t realize how loose Orrin is. He has a particular approach to bandleading, which is pretty much all about spontaneity. It comes through in the way that he leans into that initial reaction to the music.”

Wilkins’ first encounter with Evans at a recording session came with an invitation to play on the Captain Black Big Band album The Intangible Between (Smoke Sessions). Recorded in October 2019 and released in May 2020, the album, which earned a Grammy nomination, thrust him into a cutting contest with longtime Captain Black saxophonist and arranger Todd Bashore. The vehicle was “That Too,” a spiky piece Evans wrote for the WDR Big Band. The verdict, inevitably, was a draw.

“‘That Too’ is about the flexibility of being able to play with other people and still get what you need out of them for your band,” Evans explained. “The band has had Todd Bashore in it for years. Then there’s Caleb Wheeler Curtis and Stacy Dillard. But now, here’s Immanuel Wilkins, somebody I’ve seen grow. Here’s Todd Bashore’s solo; here’s Immanuel Wilkins’ solo. Which is better? Neither.”

Encouraging a meeting of minds by means of a ritual trial-by-fire is vintage Evans. “The music is always all about connection,” Gibson said. “That’s what makes Orrin the leader he is. He has this ability to invite everyone to contribute to the conversation. He may even press back to allow you to get a firmer footing.”

As a player on The Intangible Between, Wilkins more than proved his mettle. But Evans hired him for the December livestream more to explore his compositions, which gave the event a blueprint. Without it, Evans said, “There is no story. The best story is the good margaritas we got across the street, and then we just came and played two nights of music, two sets of music, and listened back and said, ‘Wow.’

“The only ‘plan’ was to play some of Immanuel’s music. I really like playing Immanuel’s music. I love his ballads.”

Wilkins’ balladic contribution to the album, “The Poor Fisherman,” is epic. Written in his junior year at Juilliard and based on an 1881 painting of that name by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, it is a work of melancholy and, according to Wilkins, an ode to the Trinity. Suggested by the painting’s images — a series of triangular patterns featuring Jesus-like figures — the music is built around three tonal centers with an overarching melodic structure.

“I was letting the melody guide me,” Wilkins said.

Even without knowing the story behind the piece, Evans said he embraced it as a kind of trippy journey. “Immanuel’s ballads are so beautiful, and they allow you to really, truly improvise. It’s a language everybody can’t do. You feel like you’re going to different islands on one song, and they feel like they’re connected. You’re just picking up different things before you get home.”

The performance makes clear the full range of Evans’ pianistic powers as his natural muscularity is superseded by an equal and opposite passion for delicacy. Picking up on Wilkins’ fluttery effusions, he favors strings of exquisitely rendered lines that seem to traverse the painting’s turf. The painter’s spirit comes alive.

His gentle side reemerges in a deceptively prosaic “Dave,” the album’s closer. Evans wrote the tune for saxophonist Bill McHenry, whose presence as a houseguest one holiday season proved an inadvertent inspiration when Evans’ mother-in-law, also a guest, inexplicably kept referring to Bill as Dave despite being corrected.

“I thought it was the most hilarious thing,” Evans said. “So I sat down at the piano and started playing that little melody and came up with the name ‘Dave.’”

The melody’s repeated figure becomes a mantra that suggests a simple meditation. But the real message — one of personal responsibility — is brought home near the end as a creeping dissonance roils the narrative, only to resolve to a harmonious conclusion.

“The first two bars are you knowing what needs to be done,” Evans explained. “The second two bars are you not doing it. And hopefully that comfortable Stevie Wonder cadence at the end is you dealing with what needs to be done. It’s really a song about seeing what you want to see, about seeing what’s comfortable rather than dealing with what really needs to be dealt with.”

That “Dave” closes the album makes sense. The need for personal responsibility is central to Evans’ ethos, musical and otherwise. It reaches back to a childhood shaped in no small measure by his father, playwright Donald T. Evans, a figure in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s whose fictitious scenarios, Evans said, often foretold the dynamic in their home.

The elder Evans’ death in 2003 hit Evans hard; his spare, mournful rendition of Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” — the track that appears on 2005’s Easy Now — attests to the depth of his pain. So, perhaps, does his assertion when asked whether “Orrin,” the playwright’s domestic drama about a wayward son at odds with his father — produced in New York in 1972 — bore any relationship to reality.

“I hope not,” he said.

While grief might not be central to Evans’ aesthetic, he does make space in his songbook for homages to recently fallen colleagues, like drummer Lawrence Leathers (his plaintive “I’m So Glad I Got To Know You”) and trumpeter Roy Hargrove (Gibson’s astute arrangement of Hargrove’s “Into Dawn”). Both tributes appear on The Intangible Between.

At the keyboard, Evans said, he keeps the possibility of imminent demise in his thoughts: “I always prefer to do things as if it were my last day on earth. That might sound morbid to some, but when I jump on the bandstand I want to play like that, when I jump into the studio I want to play like that.”

To be sure, death has touched Evans during the COVID era. As he traveled to the Blue Note for the Tyner tribute last year, he said, he resolved to act on long-delayed plans to record with Williams, drummer Gene Jackson and trumpeter Wallace Roney. He did so four days later, and by the end of the month Roney had succumbed to the virus. Evans’ godparents followed.

But now, he was back at the Blue Note and looking at bluer skies. After a three-year run with The Bad Plus, he has left the trio — on good terms, he said — to pursue more of his own projects. He has recordings in the can, including a duo with guitarist Kevin Eubanks. He has set summer release parties for The Magic Of Now at New York’s Birdland and Philadelphia’s South. And he is negotiating a residency for the big band. All of which, he said, allow for a bit of cheer.

“Music deserves some credit for being just as fine and sexy as she was, as he was, pre-pandemic,” he said. “So many people came out of this still in love with her, still in love with him. That’s how I look at this pandemic. It either strengthened your love or showed you some other options.” DB

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