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Orrin Evans: Hot Irons In The Fire

R.J. DeLuke By

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You got to keep some irons in the fire. Keep a lot of things going so you don't get bored —Orin Evans
A pianist with great chops, great touch and an attack that fancies many influences from fierce swing to gospel, Orrin Evans is one of the outstanding creative musicians on the New York City scene. His work, no matter what the context—and he loves different contexts—is downright riveting at times.

But for the 38-year-old who hails from Philadelphia, jazz, though a pleasure, was a bit of a mystery when he was first experimenting with it.

"I didn't know what improvisation was, to be honest. I didn't know what they were doing," when he listened to records, says Evans. "I got into jazz through the Great American Songbook. My mother was a singer, my father was a playwright. So I came up with Broadway and everything. I just knew tunes. That's how I got into jazz more. I was drawn to the sounds. It wasn't improvisation because I didn't know what it was. I just recognized the beautiful harmonies and I wanted to understand more."

The music's magical improvisational was "an added plus," he quips. It's a "plus" he's been investigating in a career spanning more than 20 years and more than 20 albums. Evans is always engaging as he expresses himself in the keyboards. He's exciting as well as innovative. He keeps as a high priority a desire to express himself in the music, and to always work on developing his own sound and approach.

He notes from that early period, "Once I discovered the music and then realized what was happening, I was like, 'Oh wow. That's what's going on?' And that was fun. It's still fun."

Among the directions Evans likes to take is the big band element, and he occasionally leads his Captain Black Big Band at gigs around New York. He's recorded two albums with the band, most recently Mother's Touch which came out this year on Posi-Tone Records. Thought the record is out just this year, it was recorded not long after his first big band recording came out, Captain Black Big Band in 2011 (also Posi-Tone).

"It's a totally different project," he said of the new release, which is a studio session, while the first was recorded live. "The first band was a group of individuals where we said, 'Let's see what happens.' We had a great time. I called on some friends. And between the two records, there as some personnel changes. For no major reason, just things happen to bands. Some people weren't in New York. No matter what, the core was the same. But the vibe between records—one is studio project and the first was was live—it's the next step. Hopefully it's a new journey or a new book."

Both albums are smoking with a lot of original music and an occasional re-working, like Wayne Shorter's "Water Babies" on Mother's Touch. Evans doesn't do all the writing and arranging. Other band members contribute as well. But there is one conceptual approach Evans likes to push forward.

"I like making a big band act like a small group," says Evans. "That's been one of the most exciting things about the band. Getting arrangers like Todd Bashore, David Gibson and Todd Marcus. I can talk that idea through with them. What I mean by that is some big bands don't have the same freedom as a small group. A piano trio can take the music wherever you want and move all around. Sometimes with a big band, you can't do that. You worry about, 'Oh my goodness . Is everyone going to be on the same page with me?' Things like that. What I like about this band is that it operates like a small group. We still can take those tangents. You really don't see that much with a big band because there are so many parts. So many components. They want to make sure everyone is on the same page."

Evans hands his compositional creations to others in the band, but "we talked about things we want in the arrangement." When he is arranging, "Mother's Touch" and "Jena 6" are examples on the new disk, he makes a conscious effort to devise ways to keep the big band loose, with traits of a small band. He says he tries "to keep the band thinking like a small group. Sometimes in a big group, you're like, 'I'll just lay out.' You're looking at a big band and you can see the whole front row of saxophonists looking bored. Or the trombonists looking bored. The way I try to look at it is we're keeping everybody involved constantly through the entire process."

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