Orrin Evans returns to NYC to ‘Flip the Script’
Orrin Evans is ready for his return to the East Coast.
Speaking from Japan via Skype, the pianist and composer reports that he’s been on the road a lot since February, performing and teaching. He misses his family in Philly, including his two sons, ages 14 and 19, and his wife of almost 20 years, Dawn Warren Evans.
Soon they’ll get to see him. And so will his fans in New York when Evans appears in “Three Shades of Orrin,” his three-night run at the Jazz Standard on East 27th St. next week.
The gig will showcase the range of his artistic personality.
“It’s different bands, literally, each night, and different concepts,” he says. The first evening is a release party for “Flip the Script,” Evans’ most recent trio statement. Joining him will be Vicente Archer on bass and Obed Calvaire on drums.
Trumpeter Jack Walrath and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield are special guests with the trio on Wednesday. Then on Thursday night, the Captain Black Big Band, a loosely structured, versatile group of cats in their 30s and above, will smoke the stage.
He views this career milestone as a “blessing,” a word that crosses his lips several times in our chat. He initiates a verbal jam session on topics like home and family, culture and the business side, with music as the consistent thread.
Evans walks with an attitude of gratitude. He has a serious demeanor, but he leaps and laughs with joy when playing music. He’s the kind of guy who will pause and look at you before cracking up at a joke.
His journey began in Trenton, N.J., when he was born in 1976 to Don and Frances Evans. “My father was a playwright,” he says, “and one of the members of the Black Arts Movement. He taught African-American history at Trenton State College for 25 years, and also at Princeton. My mother was a singer in Opera Ebony.”
Oscar Peterson and Phineas Newborn lit the piano flame early. Then teachers such as Kenny Barron, Joanne Brackeen, Ralph Bowen and Ted Dunbar at Rutgers University stoked the fire. Evans’ exciting piano flow owes debts to Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Kirkland and, perhaps, Marcus Roberts.
“I’m devoted to the history of this music,” he says, “to unadulterated swing, things that our elders saw as important.” That’s why a recent recording project was named Tar Baby, after the Uncle Remus character in the Brer Rabbit tales.
Those cultural elements were “something that people didn’t want to hold onto for fear that they would get stuck to the history, or associated with something that they didn’t want to be.”
A shrinking violet he’s not. The CD “Flip the Script” bounds with exuberant agility. Bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards ride curves of sound with Evans in the driver’s seat. The title refers to a sudden shift or even a reversal in course.
The song itself is like a “road map and roller coaster with different time signatures,” Evans says. The words also refer to the need to start anew in relationships, but while “keeping true to the things that I believe about this music. And playing in ways that some might not expect.”
Like the ballad “When,” a reflective piece in which Evans wonders, in a slightly sad way, about trying to keep one’s head up. There’s an especially fine arrangement on “Brand New Day,” a pop song from “The Wiz” with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, which also serves as a tribute to Luther Vandross. The optimistic, well-lit “Clean House” points to how “every once in a while, you’ve got to reboot and clean your cache.”
The somber mood of the last number, Gamble and Huff’s “The Sound of Philadelphia,” is like a silent prayer for the deceased. Evans flips the script on those who think it’s a tribute to Philly. It’s actually in honor of Don Cornelius, who died three weeks before the recording session. The song was the theme of the black American music and dance series “Soul Train.”
To Evans, the players are not just a leader with some sidemen. His experience playing in a musical conversation with Bobby Watson taught him to think of his closest musical associates as family.
“The shades of Orrin Evans are all about my associations with my friends and with my family,” he says. “Come on out and see how we party. You’re gonna have a good time and hear some great music.”
Then he refers to one of this jazz joint’s secret weapons: the food provided by Smoke barbecue upstairs.
“I want you to feel like you came to a barbeque,” he says, “that happened to be at the Jazz Standard.