Orrin Evans, the Trenton-born, Philadelphia-based, New York-working jazz pianist has the itinerary of a musician who is in his prime and in demand.
Yet as his artistry propels him up and down the East Coast and across the nation, he will take time to acknowledge his roots, as he has done each of the last three years for his March 28 birthday. This year he will mark the occasion on Saturday, March 23, when he performs with his trio at the Candlelight Lounge on Passaic Street in Trenton.
“Music is my love, and I like to be surrounded by people who love playing music, so that’s what I like to do around my birthday,” Evans said recently.
Of course, he could play on his birthday just about anywhere and, coincidentally, has another birthday gig set for Wednesday, March 27, at the Zinc Bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. But his Trenton roots remain deep, so his Candlelight performances have served as a homecoming over the years.
“The 23rd is special,” Evans said.
Evans performs regularly at the Zinc Bar and plays twice a month at Smoke Jazz and Supper Club in uptown Manhattan with his Captain Black Big Band, which DownBeat magazine named one of its “Rising Stars” in 2011.
Last month he performed with the Tim Green Quintet and later led the Orrin Evans Trio during a live webcast from New York’s Tribeca presented by Newark’s WBGO 88.3 FM. In April he and his trio will mentor and perform with high school students during the TRI-C Jazz Festival in Cleveland. A new album — his 14th as a band leader in almost as many years — comes out May 21 on Criss Cross records, to be followed by a release party. The summer so far has jazz festivals booked in Pittsburgh, Litchfield, CT, and Monterey, CA.
But besides being a busy pianist upon whom the description “jazz virtuoso” is well-placed, Evans, who is about to turn 37, is also a family man. He and his wife Dawn, a singer in her own right, have two sons: Miles, in the Navy; and Matthew at Central High School in Philadelphia. On his Facebook page Evans mingles pictures and news about his family and musical lives, even posting a photo of him on bended knee proposing to Dawn. He recently noted the emotions he felt as his son turned 20 while incommunicado during basic training, and, in a post that elicited 273 “likes” and 39 comments at last count, he went on a good-natured rant aimed at men who say they “babysit” their own children.
Perhaps it is no wonder that parenting should be so intertwined with his art. After all, Evans grew up in a home where the creative arts were part of everyday life. His late father, Don Evans, was an acclaimed playwright who chaired the Afro-American Studies Department at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey) and was instrumental in the creation of Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick. His late mother, Frances, was an accomplished soprano and is also remembered for her years working at the YWCA in Trenton. On his website, Evans has a recording of his mother singing the aria “Come Scoglio” from Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte.” His 2009 album, “Easy Now,” is dedicated to his father’s memory. In January he traveled to London for a performance of the Don Evans play “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.”
“Basically I grew up in an artistic household, but I thought everybody grew up like that,” Evans said. “I thought everyone’s mom would have dinner parties and someone would start playing the piano and singing. I didn’t know any other thing. My folks were both heavily involved in the arts. That was all I knew and all I desired to do.”
He was a young boy when his family moved to Philadelphia. He remained immersed in music, entering the Girard Academic Music Program, a public school that offers a concentrated program of performing arts and academics. He credits Jack Carr, the school’s principal, as an early influence.
“When I moved to Philadelphia I was surrounded by people who played music as a career. I was 14 when I got serious and decided to start doing this,” he said.
Evans studied informally with some of Philadelphia’s contemporary jazz all-stars, including Trudy Pitts, Shirley Scott, Mickey Roker, Bobby Durham, Edgar Bateman, and Sid Simmons. He went on to Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, cut his first album in 1994, and arrived on the New York jazz scene in 1996. The demand for his piano artistry grew, and Evans’ performing resume increased to include luminaries as diverse as the Mingus Big Band, Roy Hargrove, Pharoah Sanders, Nicholas Payton, Branford Marsalis, Mos Def, Common, Antonio Hart, Carmen Lundy, Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson, Sean Jones, Tim Warfield, Ravi Coltrane, and Robin and Duane Eubanks.
There is a lot going on in Orrin Evans’ music.
“My approach is pretty much a hodgepodge and a combination of several influences,” he said. “I try to show respect to all of the people who have come before me. Ultimately, I like everyone from different periods. There are great Shirley Scott records that I love. There are great McCoy Tyner records. Herbie Hancock. Depending on where I’m at I try to call on them all depending on who I’m with. There’s no one influence, but maybe two or three from the jazz lexicon.”
Evans usually has more than one project going on at a time. His own groups can be a trio, quartet, or quintet. Numerous videos of his performances are available online, and they show Evans’ unflinching approach to modern, quite often expressionistic music. He is a master of improvisation with a seemingly endless selection of complex chords ready for use and a road map for where they should take him.
As is the style in the jazz world, he and his band will begin a song with the briefest suggestion of melody before reducing it to bare elements and embarking on extended variation. Just when a listener might wonder whether there is any blues in the lexicon he spoke of, Evans is likely to inject a phrase that makes his piano rumble like the bass section of a church choir. He quoted “We Shall Overcome” as part of an extended, exploratory solo during the WBGO webcast in February.
He is co-leader of Tarbaby, which the New York Times last year called “a fine and provocative post-bop unit,” and with which Evans has recorded two albums. He has also recorded with the Captain Black Big Band, which Evans named after the pipe tobacco his father used, and in which the Times said “Evans drives a high-octane large ensemble with intensity and vigor.”
“It’s a band that I formed three years ago,” he said. “We were doing a residency at Chris’s Jazz Cafe on Sansom Street [in Philadelphia]. It just grew. It’s a great band with great musicians playing arrangements of some of my tunes and other tunes. We’re working on our second record right now. Every other Monday we play at Smoke.”
Evans is comfortable being part of another combo rather than always being the leader. He is part of a prodigiously talented group of musicians in Philadelphia and New York whose endless versatility is second only to their boundless creativity, among them: Tim Green, Ben Wolfe, Obed Calvaire, Eric Revis, Byron Landham, Nasheet Waits, Ralph Peterson, Ralph Bowen, J.D. Allen, Mike Boone, Rodney Green, and Luques Curtis.
They are as interchangeable among each other as their solos are from one song to the next. The music is polytonal and polyrhythmic, and the playing is exquisitely precise. For the first set last month in Tribeca, which was led by Tim Green, everyone dressed casually. Suits and ties were the order of the day when the Orrin Evans Trio took the stage for the second set, during which the song list was crowd-sourced until the end, when Evans decided to play what he wanted.
“For our gig we had discussed what we were wearing, and we decided to wear suits,” he said. “We knew it would be televised. To each his own. It really depends on the environment, what type of venue, what type of gig it is.
“It’s all about a bunch of cats out there trying to be the best they can be. I’m trying to be the best Orrin Evans out there. The best thing someone can say is that ‘no one else plays like you.’”
The Candlelight Lounge in Trenton has jazz Saturdays 3 to 7 p.m. E.C. Bradley, owner of the Candlelight, is looking forward to March 23, too.
“Orrin right now is a premier pianist in the nation,” Bradley said. “When he comes we get a very nice crowd. He has quite a following. There have been times when he has popped in to play when he had time. It’s a great honor to have someone of Orrin’s status because he never forgets his roots. It’s great for the community to see we have a musician of that stature.”
Orrin Evans, Candlelight Lounge, 24 Passiac Street, Trenton. Saturday, March 23, 3 to 7 p.m. No cover; $10 minimum. jazztrenton.com.