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."

What Evans doesn't do, he says, is try to stylize the process. "In My Soul," for example, has some church and soul to it. But, "The funny thing is, I don't really even think about that. I think sometimes people think I do, but mostly I just do what I enjoy doing. I've seen people do it. They're like, 'We can't put this song next to this song.' The way I look at it is: lets just put them all on and see what people like. I envy the people who do a project and it's, like, this is going to be this kind of project. And they do the entire project. I've always wanted to do it, but there's always a part of me that says, 'Let me throw this little wrench in here.' ...'He did a whole record of—Oh, no he didn't,'" he says gleefully.

As is the case these days, getting work for a big band isn't easy. Still, Evans hopes to keep it going and envisions more recordings in the future for Captain Black.

"I've got a great group of people who understand the struggle. I try to treat them right. We've been lucky to have a full-time gig every other week at Smoke in New York, so that kind of helps as far as the overall morale of the band. Everybody's excited because we have something to look forward to every other week," he says. "But the whole thing is based on letting the band know you're trying your best. The hardest thing is travel. When you have to get 15 people there, that can be difficult. A quartet, you can rent a minivan. You've got to be dedicated to it."

He adds, "The most exciting thing about the Captain Black Big Band and what makes the process of the second record and the third and fourth and however long we're blessed to continue to play, is getting closer to documenting that energy of a big band that operates like a small group."

The affable Evans chuckles a bit thinking about the new Captain Black release, because it took some time to get to the public. "I'm excited that it's out. It seems like everyone is enjoying it. The only issue for us is sometimes by the time it gets to the public, we're already thinking about the next one."

Evans seems to be always having different irons in the fire, stoking the logs and generating heat for his audience. His next thing is a quintet album coming out in August. Liberation Man (Smoke Session), dedicated to Dwayne Burno, a bassist and Evans friend who died on December of a liver disease. It was recorded in January. "We lost him a week or two before we did the recording," says the pianist. The band includes drummer Bill Stewart, saxophonist JD Allen, trumpeter Sean Jones and bassist Luques Curtis.

Evans says the next big band record could come out a year from now, which could be some Sun Ra music the band recorded at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in New York. I'm considering putting out a live recording at Dizzy's of Sun Ra's music and I'm really considering putting that out. "You got to keep some irons in the fire. Keep a lot of things going so you don't get bored."

Additionally, a group he formed with two comrades, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits— known as Tarbaby—is still active and has a recording out in Europe, Fanon recorded on the RogueArt label in France. Tarbaby has been playing to critical acclaim for about seven years and in June did a set of the new music at the Vision Jazz Festival in New York City. The record is available online, but not at stores in the U.S. Special guests on this record are Oliver Lake on saxophone and Marc Ducret on guitar.

"It's fun to play with these cats. It's family. Kids and family. It's been a long time. It's really fun... When you're all speaking the same language there is no 'wrong.' It's just, 'Come on. Let's play,'" Says Evans. "Ultimately what attracted me to playing with Eric and Nasheet, along with some other people I like to play with, is the humanitarian vibe... it carries to the bandstand, once you get too that level of conversation with someone."

A strong music scene in Philly fostered and fueled Evans growing up. His mother encouraged him to play piano. And, he was living in neighborhoods where "I couldn't run and play in the street. So that's pretty much when I said, 'OK. Let me get back into this piano thing my mother was trying to get me to play.' That's pretty much when I fell in love with it and found a whole new world."

Evans' father listened to jazz and his uncle was a jazz musician around Philly so he was exposed to the music. He had some informal instruction from the likes of Trudy Pitts, Shirley Scott, Mickey Roker and Bobby Durham. "I was gigging around Philly when I was still in high school. Playing with different people. Philly was a great place to grow up for music, especially then. There were so many avenues and different elders that would help you out and get you on the right track to playing music. There were Saturday programs, Sunday programs. There was a lot going on in Philly back then."

"It was a musical place. No one spectacular," he says. "It was a time with Joey DeFrancesco, Christian McBride, John Roberts [drums], Dwayne Burno. All of us were coming through Philly in a five-year span. It was a good place to be. They had different funding for different musical programs. It wasn't just the teaching, it was the opportunities to play and perform."

In 1993, after attending Girard Academic Music Program, Evans went to the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Kenny Barron and JoAnne Brackeen were among his teachers. But he doesn't single out any one in particular influence in his formative years. He listened to them all, accords each their respect, and gleaned what he could.

"Anybody that played music I was into. I was smart enough to know I shouldn't have an opinion at that time. So all I did was listen and check out more stuff. There was no one I wouldn't at least check out," he says. "But I only gravitated to people to find my sound and my language. There's not one person out that that's an elder in this music that I don't respect. From John Hicks to Kenny Kirkland, Marian McPartland, Herbie Hancock. Everybody. But I listened to all those people to find myself.

Upon moving to New York in the mid-90s, getting hired by Bobby Watson became a huge stepping stone for Evans' career." He was one of the first people to take me on the road and give me an opportunity outside of what I was doing. I was 19 or 20. I had just moved to New York." From there, "it's been an ongoing process. After that, I did the first record on Criss Cross [The Orrin Evans Trio] and stayed with them. There's been a lot of good things. You've just got to keep going.

The Watson gig opened the door to a career that found him playing on the New York jazz scene with the likes of Wallace Roney, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Ralph Bowen, the Mingus Big Band, Branford Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane and so many more. He's now able to lead his own groups, and he is also involved in producing for people like Sean Jones. He stays busy.

"The scene is what you make it. It's definitely a different scene," he says of New York these days. "But it's what you make it. This is what we do. We can't walk around and say, 'There's no clubs, so we're not going to work.' You've got to find other things, find other avenues to do what you've got to do. It's not a time when I would go out at 11 [p.m.] and hit six or seven jazz clubs. No. But it's today, and we have to adjust to make it today work. You've got stay in everybody's face. Every year you've got to do something new."

To the point, he adds, "I wouldn't want to do anything else."

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