Something Else! Interview: Orrin Evans, Jazz Pianist, Composer and Bandleader


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By Nick DeRiso

Orrin Evans arrived amidst a wave of new jazz performers in the early 1990s. Unlike many of those young lions, however, he managed to bob up from that era's ultimately empty retro-conservatism. “A lot of those guys, quite frankly," Orrin says, “just gave too much of a f—. And I never did." By that, Evans means he never cared that much about being careful, for convention. It hasn't sold him more records, nor made him a bigger star. Yet, even today, his passion for the work remains unquestioned. And, it seems, Evans is finally getting his due.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Orrin Evans talks about first-take Cole Porter triumphs, songs that he can't stop chasing and the stirring finale to his new big band record, “Jena 6."]

Raised by a musical family, Evans says that he had no choice but to follow that muse. He grew up in Philadelphia but returned to his native New Jersey to study at Rutgers University with Kenny Barron and Ralph Bowen. Evans, a former middle and high school teacher, then gained early notice over a lengthy stretch as pianist in Bobby Watson's band. He's also performed with Ralph Peterson, the Charles Mingus Big Band, Duane Eubanks and singer Lenora Zenzalai-Helm, among others. Evans recorded his first CD as a leader in 1994. After that, he signed with Criss Cross Jazz, a period perhaps highlighted by 1998's Captain Black—dedicated to his father. Evans developed a kindred relationship along the way with Bowen, both as a leader and as a sideman, beginning with that stay at Criss Cross.

Later, he joined Bowen at Marc Free's deeply respected independent jazz label Posi-tone, where Evans has just issued the critically acclaimed Captain Black Big Band.

SomethingElseReviews.com caught up with Evans this week to talk about his new project, key influences like Barron and Bowen and his abiding passion for Philadelphia ...

Nick DeRiso: Your new record blows up the long-held expectations of sweetly swinging big band music, infusing it with sharp angles and even sharper themes. Was that always the goal, to update the old swing aesthetic? Orrin Evans: The goal was simply to play some music and do something different. To be honest, I didn't have that in mind when I put this together. It was really just something else for me to do in Philadelphia. Living here, sometimes you can feel unconnected to the New York scene. So, creating this big band was a way of getting a chance to play, just calling up some of my boys from Philly and doing some fun stuff. After a month or two, I said: “Wait a minute. I need to document this."

DeRiso: What was the impact of working with Kenny Barron as a student?

Evans: My lessons with Kenny weren't so much musical. They were more like life lessons. We would just get together and play and talk about the music. That was great for me, at that time. He put me in a situation to sub for him when he couldn't make gigs. But when I think about the time is spent with Kenny, it wasn't just the music. It was so much more.

DeRiso: There's a bold dynamic to your playing. Is that the influence of Philadelphia's own McCoy Tyner, as well?

Evans: I'm from Philadelphia, so there is no way not to relate to McCoy Tyner. He has to be in play. Basically, it's one of those things where it's hard not play like that; a voice like McCoy Tyner's is hard to deny. I've noticed that most of the younger players that have come out of Philadelphia have that approach, too. It's more a way of voicing chords, a way of comping that's very similar to not just McCoy but to that entire quartet—John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Everybody is chasing that sound.

DeRiso: Obviously, Philadelphia is a touchstone for you. What was the scene like back then? What about now?

Evans: Back then, I would come back and have Shirley Scott to guide me. But those older voices are gone now. It's kind a shame that we don't have somebody like that still around. But the thing that strikes me is that there are much more young people doing it now. When I came up, Joey DeFrancesco and Chris McBride, all of those guys were coming out from Philadelphia. The difference back then was, you graduated from high school and went off to college. We didn't stay here. Now what's happening is, Temple has built a good music program. A lot of people are staying and becoming professional musicians right here in town.

DeRiso: Your next project is a tribute to Philadelphia, right?

Evans: It's a quartet record, with all Philly musicians. Almost all of the tunes were written by Philadelphia musicians, as well. I don't know if it's a tribute, since there are parts of it that are tongue-in-cheek. When you live in a place as long as I have, you see it for what it is.

DeRiso: But loving something—or someone—warts and all is the only true love, right?

Evans: That's absolutely right.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Our thoughts on “Jena 6," the devastating, and topical, finale to Orrin Evans' new release 'Captain Black Big Band'.]

DeRiso: Describe the musical relationship you have with Ralph Bowen.

Evans: It started as a musical relationship; he was my professor at Rutgers University. But I kept bugging him. He was really trying not to play with his students. After I left Rutgers, I stalked Ralph Bowen! (Laughs.) After a while, by the time I did Captain Black in 1996, he couldn't stay away anymore and we became friends. He played at my wedding; I was best man at his wedding. It's not even a musical relationship anymore. Now, that's the perk; the friendship is the first thing.

DeRiso: As a former school teacher, and somebody who's still involved in working with young people, what's your take on the struggles with public arts funding? How do we fill that gap?

Evans: It's the parents who need to step up. If you are a parent, there are always museums, always jazz clubs, always theater to expose your children to. Once we realize that the onus is on us as parents, we'll be alright. I force my kids to sit down and watch theater—my father was a playwright—and they get so upset that they have to do that. (Laughs.) That's our responsibility, to give that to our kids, and not simply to rely on what they get in school. Right now, it's more about us realizing that it's important.

DeRiso: You're managing almost 40 players across two editions of the Captain Black Big Band. What's that been like?

Evans: The thing that was different was the amount of phone calls you have to make. (Laughs.) My wife (vocalist Dawn Warren) and I love people; we love being around people. I wouldn't say it's easy but when you love people and you like playing, it just seemed natural. The hardest part is the clerical work. (Laughing again.) You've got to make sure that everybody got your message. Not even that. You've got to make sure that you got the message to everybody.

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