Join our mailing list

New interview with Orrin Evans….

leave a comment


Orrin Evans: Jazz cat with a plan – and deep Philly roots

By A.D. Amorosi
For The Inquirer
‘My plan is always to be playing,” says Philly pianist, composer, and arranger Orrin Evans.Judging from the last 18 months, the plan is working. He and his quartet play two shows Saturday night at Chris’ Jazz Cafe, but that’s just the latest in a very busy year and a half.

In January 2010, he put out, under his own name, a celebration of saxophonist Bobby Watson titled Faith in Action. In September, he cut an album titled The End of Fear with his avant-funk collective Tarbaby. In March, his large ensemble released the eponymous album Captain Black Big Band. Another one under his own name, Freedom, dedicated to Philly’s jazz giants, comes out Tuesday. This summer, he’ll record another Tarbaby album, which may be released before year’s end, then he’ll go to work on an album of his solo compositions. Factor in a constant touring slate for all of those bands, plus occasional teaching gigs, and you get an idea of his schedule.

That schedule is even tighter when you consider that Evans, 36, is married to singer Dawn Warren, with two children (Miles, 18, and Matthew, 13). They live in Mount Airy.

Neighborhood, Philly, family: These things are crucial to Evans and his music. “This city is everything to me,” he says. “Has been since I moved here from Trenton as a kid.” He loves the “simple things,” like being able to hit the post office and the grocery store with ease as well as play music with the extended jazz family he first met at age 12, when his father took him to Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus in Northern Liberties.

But changes are happening. “Moving to New York is inevitable,” Evans says. His Captain Black Big Band has been expanding to include as many New Yorkers as it does Philly jazz cats. And there are fewer and fewer places in Philly to make a living playing jazz. But with characteristic loyalty, he says, “I will always find a way back to Philly.”

The hard-bop acolyte has always been restless, always productive. Since arriving on the jazz scene in the mid-’90s, he has steadily made albums such as Justin Time and Grown Folk Bizness on labels such as Criss Cross. So his recent productivity simply continues a work ethic shown when he started recording as a leader or playing gigs with artists such as his mentor, Bobby Watson, and the Mingus Big Band, among many others.

All players who work with him must be members of his extended family, people he’d like to break bread with. The word has long gone around about Evans: If you’re not his friend, you’re not his collaborator. “That’s exactly it,” he laughs. He readily acknowledges the hugeness of the Captain Black Big Band – 18, or 36 when you consider he requires a second string. Still, he says, the rule remains: “I have to play with cats I have a bond with – spiritually, personally, something.”

Then there are the bonds of blood. His uncle is sax great Ellsworth Gooding, his mother is local opera singer Frances Juanita Gooding Evans, and his father was Don Evans, an educator, director, and playwright who died in 2003. The elder Evans staged plays such as August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and wrote theater works that included Mahalia and One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.

“When The Cosby Show came out, I remembered that’s how I grew up,” says Evans, who went to Settlement Music School and Martin Luther King High. “Except my folks and their friends weren’t lawyers and doctors. They were artists. We always had people reciting in my house, discussions about books, or mini-concerts where people got up, played and sang.”

He was all about jazz from childhood. Evans started on the household piano. Then he changed to clarinet and bass clarinet when the classically oriented Girard Academic Music Program he attended didn’t suit his needs (“They didn’t get my ‘Giant Steps’ stuff,” Evans says with a laugh, regarding his love of John Coltrane), going back to piano when he hit MLK High. His influences included anyone who could “translate those dots on paper” – jazz piano greats such as Lennie Tristano and McCoy Tyner, men who accompanied his mother during recitals. Soon, that would include the cast and characters of Ortlieb’s and the Clef Club.

After his parents were divorced, his father picked him up every Tuesday from Orrin’s job at Au Bon Pain in Liberty Place. They’d buy a scratch-off Lotto ticket and head to Ortlieb’s, where Orrin fell in love with roost-rulers such as fellow keyboardists Trudy Pitts and Shirley Scott.

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t around Trudy and Shirley,” says Evans. At 13 he showed up with skills and a look-at-me attitude. “But there was no point looking at me because Joey DeFrancesco was making the rounds,” says Evans, recalling the prodigious talents of the young Philly organ great.

Evans would come to lead the Tuesday jam sessions at Ortlieb’s before the club closed. Pitts, Scott, and all the legends of Ortlieb’s became his family. “What they did will always be the constant,” he says. “Whenever I teach, I tell the young ones over and over that they have to know the constants, the past, of what Miles and Trane and Shirley and Sid Simmons did.”

His new CD, the sometimes meditative, always spirited Freedom, is dedicated to Pitts, Simmons, and Charles Fambrough. It is also about the heart and soul of Philadelphia jazz. All its songs have some local connection, with several written by local giants including Scott, Fambrough, and Eddie Green, and featuring legends such as tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna.

“This record says a lot,” says Evans. “There is history here about black people and music.”

But there is more than history and dedication to this new album. It is an emotional farewell of sorts. “It is about my freedom from Philly, as well as knowing that I will always be connected to it. I can’t deny it. I want to always do records with Philly cats as well as celebrate this city. But I already have an apartment in New York City that I use when I work there. As soon as my kids grow up, I wouldn’t mind moving there full-time. It is not too late for me. As long as there is a New Jersey Turnpike and planes, there will always be a scene for me somewhere.”

Freedom, then, is not necessarily a Philly swan song, but it is a look at this city in a rearview mirror. Mention that to Kevin Eubanks, another local who got out – first as a renowned guitarist and later as bandleader for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show – and he laughs. “Orrin is a close friend of mine and a good friend to my family,” says Eubanks. “He’s great enough to call his own shots. He should be where he’s happiest.”

What makes Orrin Evans happiest, no matter where he plays or lives, is having a plan. “Hannibal on The A-Team always said, ‘I love it when a plan comes together,’ ” says Evans. “I may dig going to the bandstand and not knowing what is going to happen, but I thrive on knowing what the possibilities are.”




Written by editor

June 20th, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Interviews

Tagged with ,