Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The subtle power of pianist Orrin Evans

Posted By on 08.14.13 at 02:47 PM

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In this week's paper I previewed an exciting concert happening Thursday night in Millennium Park: the fantastic drummer Dana Hall will be reconvening his Black Fire project, which plays the music of pianist and composer Andrew Hill, with a lineup twice as large as the one he used to debut the endeavor last year at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. One of the new participants is the excellent Philadelphia pianist Orrin Evans, one of the most critically overlooked musicians in all of jazz. He's made 20 albums as a leader since the late 90s and worked with some of greatest current jazz artists (including Ralph Peterson, Nicholas Payton, Ravi Coltrane, Eddie Henderson, Pharoah Sanders, Branford Marsalis and more), yet he remains largely unknown outside the music's cognoscenti. Luckily, Chicagoans are getting a couple of chances to hear his playing over the next few months: in addition to playing with Hall on Thursday, he'll be back in November to play the Umbrella Music Festival with his collective trio Tarbaby, featuring bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.

Earlier this year Evans released a typically stellar studio effort called "...it was beauty" (Criss Cross Jazz) cut with the core trio of Revis and drummer Donald Edwards, but also featuring appearances by Ben Wolfe, Luques Curtis, and Alex Claffy, three other bassists he's often worked with. Evans isn't flashy and he doesn't operate with any grand concepts, but he's absorbed the practices of many of jazz's greatest, most singular pianists and assimilated them into an approach all his own. In Ted Panken's liner notes Evans even admits, "Ten years ago, I wasn't that familiar with Elmo Hope or Andrew Hill or Jaki Byard, although I know who they were. Now, when I sit down at the piano, there's more reference points. I'm thinking more about the pedals, how to get their sound, how a certain person would approach something, how their touch would come forth." He also credits living in Philadelphia for his sound, noting that many players from that city have a deeply percussive attack, himself included.

He plays with tempo (his version of "Rockin' Chair" is exquisitely, radically slow), tinkers with melodic accents (he transforms Ornette Coleman's "Blues Connotation" into a kind of New Orleans funk jam), and displays a keen ear to the work of his peers (playing lesser-known tracks by reedist Bill McHenry, bassist Mark Helias, and reedist Todd Bashore, who plays in Evans' great big band Captain Black). Those gambits all feel like specific parts in a general modus operandi of exploration and investigation, yet while Evans is clearly intrigued by what can happen when he makes rhythmic alternations or reharmonizes a piece, the results never sound haphazard or sloppy. This pianist and his collaborators are razor-sharp in the execution of his thoughtful queries. Playing as part of Hall's octet, where the repertoire is all from the Andrew Hill songbook, won't be the best way to assess Evans's art, but there's no question in my mind that he'll not only do an remarkable job with the assignment, but leave his own mark on the performances. Below you can check out the great tempo-shifting opener "Black Elk Speaks," a tune by Revis.

Today's playlist:

Animal Collective, Centipede Hz (Domino)
Kim Hae-Sook, Gayageum Sanjo (Ocora)
Art Farmer, Early Art (Prestige/OJC)
Ava Luna, Ice Level (Infinite Best)
Food, Mercurial Balm (ECM)

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