Q&A: Orrin Evans On The Economics Of Trio Albums, Jazz Musicians’ Constant Reinvention, And Records That Are Too Long
Pianist Orrin Evans is a busy man. With nearly 20 albums out under his own leadership and a slew of impressive sideman performances to his credit, he’s built a sterling reputation on the modern, straight-ahead jazz scene. His music has melody and swing, with a dash of groove here and there, and he frequently pays tribute to Philadelphia, the city where he was raised and educated. His 2011 album Freedom featured Philly-based musicians exclusively, including saxophonist Larry McKenna, well-known at home but not exactly a household name nationally.
Evans’ latest release, Flip The Script, is a trio disc featuring bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. In addition to eight originals, the concise collection (10 tracks in 45 minutes) features the band’s interpretations of “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “The Sound of Philadelphia,” better known as the theme song to Soul Train. To celebrate its release, he’s playing three nights at the Jazz Standard starting Tuesday, July 17, with the band growing larger night by night. On Tuesday, he’ll play with a different trio, made up of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Obed Calvaire. On Wednesday, that group will be augmented by trumpeter Jack Walrath and saxophonist Tim Warfield. On Thursday, the Captain Black Big Band, featuring four trumpets, four trombones and four saxophones in addition to the trio, will take over. This interview was conducted on July 9, while Evans was in Japan backing saxophonist Seamus Blake.
What gave you the idea to do three nights with three bands?
It’s basically an idea that stemmed a while ago, from wanting to do something consecutive at a club in New York, and since I’ve done all these different projects, if I had done it solely under [the auspices of] my own record label, the different records I’ve done on that label. But it ended up being based on my recent record, Flip The Script, which is on Posi-Tone, but I said, we can still do the same type of idea. Although I’ve never done a quintet record on Posi-Tone yet. So basically it was just an idea my wife and I had a few years ago, but I’d never been able to bring it to fruition, and we’re really excited to do it at the Jazz Standard.
How much overlap will there be in the set lists? Will people be able to hear three different versions of some tunes if they come every night?
Exactly. Probably about three or four tunes will overlap, but the majority of what the trio plays, I’m going to really stick to the present record. The quintet, we have some other tunes that we’ve been playing as a group, but there’s some overlap with the big band. And I know some people will actually think about that, and worry, “Well, I don’t want to go back and hear the same music,” but I think that’s kind of fun, actually, to see how it’s interpreted by a different ensemble. If it was another club, you’d go back and hear the same music and the exact same band. But now you get a chance to hear other cats interpret the same tunes, and that’s exciting to me and I hope it’s going to be exciting for the audience after Tuesday night, like, “Oh, let’s go back on Wednesday and see what they do.” So some overlap, but not completely. It won’t be the same exact set.
Is this trio—Vicente Archer and Obed Calvaire—is this a regular group for you, or a rhythm section you hired for this set of dates?
Well, I’ve always considered myself a little different than other leaders, because you tend to have what you described, a regular working trio. I’m blessed to have a family of people who I can call, and that could be five or six different people on bass, five or six different people on drums. We all are familiar with the same book of music, familiar with the same language, and when we get together we just see what happens with the tunes that might be different than the other bass player and drummer that had played it. So it’s not regular in the sense that we have always played together, but we have played together and we’ve played some of this music together. And they’re part of the family. In these times, unless you’re on the road at least 10 months out of the year, it’s pretty hard to have a regular working trio. So I try to just have people I’ve played with, and played this music with. So it’s regular in that they’re part of the family that I’ve been able to build over the past 17 years.
What’s the process of arranging a song for big band when it wasn’t originally composed for that size ensemble?
When I first put the [Captain Black Big Band] together, I actually hired two arrangers, one for the first record and another where I composed the tunes and a gentleman named Todd Bayshore did the majority of the arrangements. For the next record, we brought on Todd Marcus, another arranger, and David Gibson. And then I have a lot of conversations between them on ideas I have and they all come together, and they’re the main arrangers. But there are about three or four tunes that I’ve arranged [myself], and it’s no different than anything else. If you’re having a conversation with one or two people, hopefully the other person is listening and then they get their chance to talk. It’s just [showing] respect for when it’s your time to do something and your time not to do something. And that’s how I look at arranging, is it’s like building. You have your main theme and you just build on it to make it one big conversation. And we have a few tunes that I’ve arranged where that’s solely what I think about. How can we all participate in this conversation, but not talk over each other?
There are pianists whose style is immediately recognizable within a few bars—Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, Matthew Shipp. What do you think makes your playing immediately identifiable as yours?
The experiences I’ve had in my life, one of which is growing up in Philadelphia. There’s a certain type of approach that I’ve only heard coming out of Philadelphia pianists. I could be wrong, ’cause I know it’s me ’cause it’s me, but other people, I think they listen and hear what they think is my touch, that is similar to what some other pianists might play. And also how you interpret time. I think I have a really different approach to time, touch and feel. And I base a lot of that on my life experience—the music I grew up listening to, the people I checked out like Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts, McCoy Tyner, Sid Simmons, all these people who are from Philadelphia. Sid Simmons was a great pianist from Philly who didn’t blow up to international fame but still recorded a lot, and in two notes I could tell it was him, and that’s because of that Philly sound that I heard resonating from the piano. So although I was born in New Jersey, I was raised in Philadelphia, and I think people can really tell where I’m from in how I play.
You’ve made a lot of trio albums. What draws you to that format?
I can’t stand the trio format. Economics have drawn me to that format, where this is what the record producer wants. The first couple of times I did trio, I just went, aw, man, I can’t wait to bring some horn players in, and Meant to Shine, which I did on Palmetto, was an all-quintet record, but economically it seems like I can keep a trio performing a little easier, because you can all fit in a Honda Accord and get to the gig. [laughs] But with a quartet or a quintet, sometimes economically it’s not always easy to keep it going. But the one thing I do like about doing trio is that I’m in full control of the direction of where the band is going. I don’t have to communicate to one more person, “OK, we’re gonna play the melody right here.” There’s a sense of freedom that I do enjoy about playing trio, but there’s also a sense of vulnerability that is extremely intimidating. And that’s something I’ve always shied away from in performing and recording with just a trio. It’s intimidating. You’re out there, and you have to pull the cats along. But the same thing that intimidates me also intrigues me.
Have you ever considered making a solo album?
You know what? It’s probably the next thing I do, in the next three or four years. I just—that’s another thing that’s even more intimidating. But when I do it live—and I’ve done two or three—it’s so much fun. Or when I do an intro to a tune. The possibilities are limitless, harmonically, lyrically, and it took me this many years to be comfortable playing solo, because you go through this thing where you’re like, “All right, is this what So-and-so would have done? Are they going to like it?” It takes a while to truly become comfortable with how you play. Always striving to get better, but just to feel comfortable with, OK, this is where I’m coming from. I’m a lot closer to that now, and I think now is the time to do a solo record. But for years, that was extremely intimidating for me.
Tell me about your relationship with Posi-Tone. You’re one of the few African-American artists on the label—what are your feelings about what they’re doing, and what it says about or does for jazz in 2012?
Well, first of all, I admire you for even realizing that. It’s something I’ve had a conversation with them about, and it’s not the first time. When I was on Palmetto, I was one of a very few African-American artists on that label. Then Bobby Watson came in—or was it the other way around? And then Javon Jackson. Now to be honest, this is probably the last project I’m doing on Posi-Tone, and that’s because we’ve reached a point where I’m seeing things [in terms of] the next step, and they’re comfortable with where they are now as a label. And they’ve done some great things for me. Great things. As far as [label owner] Marc Free and his ability to really get the word out and promote the records, he’s done a great job. Their radio campaigns have been great. But moving projects to the next level is where I’m at. And by that I mean the musicians you perform with on your projects, the budget, taking the label to like what Blue Note was—the Blue Note of Wayne Shorter and all those guys, back in the day. Or even the Blue Note of now, but just taking things to the next level. A lot of things that have happened since I’ve been on that label, things I’ve done as a financial investment.
What’s going on at the Standard, we’re doing a meet and greet happy hour before the gig, and that’s out of my pocket, putting that together. And I guess where I’m at now is, if a label doesn’t see that as important, communicating with the outside world, communicating with the press on another level, not just the level of “Hey, I’ve done a record, would you review it?” or “Hey, I’ve done a record, do you like it?” but “Hey, I’ve done a record, come on out, thank you for your support”… My wife was a realtor for years, and one of the things we talked about was an appreciation party. “Thank you for suggesting me to your friends as a realtor.” And you do happy hour, or whatever. And that’s how I feel we should get back to with the music. But a lot of labels don’t go that extra step anymore. I remember when Eric Reed had his record on Impulse!, and he had a listening event at some penthouse in New York, where he invited press and just made people feel good for supporting him. And those are the kinds of things I have in mind, and that’s probably why I want to do the next project on Imani Records, which is my label. Because if I’m going to invest anything other than my time in a label, I want to see a return. Not so much financially, but in terms of respect. I appreciate and really enjoyed the time I did spend on Posi-Tone, but I see Flip The Script, ironically, as a time to flip the script all across the board.
Flip The Script is your 13th album as a leader, right?
Nineteenth. There’s two or three of them, four of them, that are collectives. You’re right, but I’m including Captain Black Big Band and Tarbaby and another ensemble called Luvpark, an electric band that I put out a few years ago, back in 2006. And those are collectives, but I was on those records.
Do you ever worry about the fact that jazz artists have such deep discographies compared to rock artists, that it makes it difficult for a new person to begin listening?
No, because the one thing that’s different between jazz and other genres is, you’re not doing a year-long campaign to support that one record. There was a time when it was like that, but you almost have to be reinventing yourself every three or four months. So it doesn’t matter where you enter, as long as you go back and do your history. When I first got into this music, I got into jazz through Steely Dan. My brother listened to Steely Dan, and I was like “Who’s that saxophonist? Oh wow, that’s Wayne Shorter. Oh, that’s Michael Brecker.” So I got into it like that, but then it’s on you as an audience member, if you’re really into this music, to do the research and go back and connect the dots. I do that with acting too. My wife laughs, because I can’t watch a movie without going to IMDB in the middle, to see what other movies the actors were in. “Hey, maybe I’ll like them in this other movie. What was their first movie?” So that’s me, and I just hope and pray that other audience members do the same type of research, and go back. “Oh, wait a minute, I’ve got Orrin’s fifth record—he did some others before this?” It keeps you fresh in their minds, and I think that’s something important, because these are the times.
It’s not like the Flip The Script band is gonna go on the road and tour for an entire year, and then take a couple of months off and do the next project. It’s different in jazz. It would be great if we were on the Beyonce budget, to go promote the record and then have everyone anticipating the next Orrin Evans record, which I hope will come around one day, but we’re not there now. So not oversaturating, but making sure you’re on people’s minds and the tip of their tongues.
Do you think it’s up to jazz musicians to reach out and actively seek new audiences—not just through social media, but even through the way they compose? I’ll give you a specific example—JD Allen, who writes these very short tunes which he says reflect modern, short attention spans. How do you feel about that attempt to meet people on a middle ground?
I think as long as you don’t dumb down or bastardize your music, it’s a great idea. And knowing JD like I know him, that’s something he’ll never do. But he will make it accessible, and that’s great. Sometimes you gotta fool ’em—it’s almost like when you want to get a baby to eat something. Some parents will just leave the peas right there, like, you gotta eat these peas. But another parent will mash ’em up and mix ’em in with some mashed potatoes, so they’re still eating the peas, but they’ve put them in with something else to make it more desirable to that baby. And as long as you don’t put things in it that dumb it down, I am for finding new ways to find new audiences, and I definitely agree with making not only the tunes shorter, but making the albums shorter. We’re a very excessive culture—like, if you can make more, then I want more. If you can supersize it, we want it supersized. So the minute CDs came out and you could get 75 minutes on this CD, everybody did that, and to be honest, I can’t stand listening to records now. I’m so bored by the end. Because you’ve had my attention for an hour and 15 minutes, and you really only had 40 minutes worth of shit to say. So that’s where I’m at as far as—Tarbaby got me into that. Yeah, we can do a 75 minute long record, but man, why? Look at those early Blue Note records; none of ’em were over 40 or 45 minutes. So that’s one way of getting new audiences, is just keeping their attention. Here, check it out. Because we are in an ADD culture, so why give them too much when they can’t focus in on it? And I’m always about trying to find new audiences, and the main reason is if you go check out most jazz, you don’t see a future in the audience. You’re seeing it more and more, but I’m really interested in seeing the future in the audience. Seeing grandparents bringing their grandsons and granddaughters out to the gig, seeing parents bringing their sons and daughters, so they can be the new audience. That happens in Europe and Japan all the time, but we don’t do it that much in the States, because our culture’s different. We’re afraid that our kids might not behave and blah blah blah. But we really need to get back to bringing kids out so this music will continue.
I interviewed Matthew Shipp a while ago, and he said at that time that he’d never played before a majority black audience. Have you?
Well, growing up in Philadelphia, yes, and that’s probably why I’m so confused right now, because I thought they existed. [laughs] And then when I first moved to New York, I moved to Brooklyn and was playing sessions for the first year or so I was in New York [that were] full of young African-Americans. And then going up to Harlem. But then, when I really started touring and performing, I realized that that’s a rare thing. And that’s something I’m really trying to figure out how to crack. Whatever that code is to get ’em to come out. So many things have circulated on Facebook—economics keep ’em out, which I would agree, but I look at it like, people will spend money on what they want, no matter how expensive it is. Black and white.
So although the clubs are expensive, I think the question is how do we get them to want to spend their money on that? Because let’s say you wake up, and you’ve got a taste for some crab legs. Now I know some people that will run to the grocery store and get seven, eight, nine pounds of crab legs and steam them up. Seven, eight, nine pounds of crab legs at $9.99 a pound if they’re not on sale, you just dropped about a hundred dollars. Then you get a case of beer—so how do you get them to want to spend that same hundred dollars on an evening of entertainment and cultural enrichment? That’s hard. I’m really trying to figure out how to get African-Americans and the black audience to want to do that. Even if you think about people going out to a club, the reality is that most of the clubs, to get guys coming in, women get in free from 10 to 12. And I’ve talked about that happening in jazz. ‘Cause where do guys go? Guys go where the women are. I don’t have solutions or answers, but I definitely have a bunch of different ideas on how to get more African-Americans out to check out this music, and a lot of them are based on marketing. Open Ebony or Jet or Essence, and it’s rare. You see it more now, but how can you get your face on the cover of those magazines, and still swing? And not feel like you have to play a different type of music to gain the audience? To do it while playing the music you’re playing now?
One of the big problems I see with the marketing of jazz is that nobody likes broccoli. And jazz is sold as something that’s good for you, not something that’s entertaining and fun. I feel like jazz musicians need to embrace the idea of being entertainers.
Right. I hear you. That’s a good point. My father was a playwright, my mother was an opera singer, so I grew up in a very performance-oriented family. Jazz musicians are sometimes in my opinion—some of them really don’t get it. “Yeah, I think the audience is really gonna like this song.” There are people, and I love these people, who sit in the audience and really listen to your tune. And they hear that bar of 5/4, and that harmonic progression. But there are some other people that really just want to know you. When you think about Facebook or any other social media… let’s say you do a gig and one of your old friends that you went to college with comes out, and they’re really not into the music—they’re into you. They want to leave feeling that they connected with you, not just your music. So how can you do that? And you don’t have to be on the mic, talking all the time. But there’s a way you can entertain and play your music without feeling like you’re, for lack of a better word, Sambo-ing it. [laughs] “This is who I am. Hi, my name is Orrin Evans. This is who I am as a person, this is who I am as a musician. Welcome to my world.” This is how I see it—they’re coming to your gig, and they come into your living room. And so many jazz musicians are horrible hosts.