Whatever music Orrin Evans presents, fear of failure won't attenuate it. "My favorite drink is the Kamikaze," says the 23-year-old pianist. "I go head-first for a lot of things. I'm a one-take kind of cat; I like to stretch out. If we drop a beat or play a wrong chord -- well, okay. I don't lead the music. Wherever the music takes me, I'm going there."
Classically trained in piano and voice, Evans has chops to burn. At his fingertips is the entire vocabulary of modern jazz piano, which he approaches with the intuitive spontaneity of an ear player. At one point or another you hear traces of Keith Jarrett ("I love the way he interprets standards, how he can take a single motif at the end of a tune and really stretch on it"), Thelonious Monk ("the attack and rawness of his music"), Herbie Hancock ("he's a harmonic genius; what else can I say?"), Lennie Tristano ("he was playing back then what we're still trying to play now"), Erroll Garner ("his left hand was so solid, such great time, plus his melodicism and control of the trio"), not to mention Chick Corea, and fellow Philadelphians McCoy Tyner and Kenny Barron. But as he demon- strated on last year's Criss-Cross debut, Just In Time (Criss 1125 CD), even at his tender age, Evans already possesses that much coveted treasure, an individual sound -- one keyed to the concept of the piano as 88 tuned drums.
As a child Evans heard a wide spectrum of music, including the above-cited piano masters, listening to records with his father, whose ritual was to smoke a pipe filled with Captain Black tobacco -- hence the title. His mother's a classical vocalist, and her son began playing piano young, entertaining relatives on weekend visits; he got serious at 12, when the family moved to Philadelphia from Trenton, N.J. Attending Mellon Jazz Workshops, the young student encountered teenage local heroes like Christian McBride and Joey de Francesco receiving hands-on training from the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Jeff Watts and Marian McPartland, and found himself drawn to the jazz challenge. He began to write music ("I wrote Explain It To Me in tenth grade, when a girl broke up with me and I didn't understand why"), did occasional gigs, and after high school entered the music program at Rutgers University.
Analyzing Captain Black's leadoff tune, for sextet, which begins with a virtuoso intro and addresses complex time signatures with nonchalant insouciance, Evans explains: "The bridge swings. The A section is just like a songo kind of thing, which Ralph put on there -- originally it was a funkier thing. The intro in 7/4 is actually there because a drummer I was playing with in high school suggested it. It's a combination of everything I was going through and learning around that time -- nothing real deep about it. I entered it in a composers competition at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and I think the only reason I won is that nobody else understood it.
"Anyway, when college came up, I said, 'Look, I made a couple of dollars doing this my senior and junior year of high school; I like to write music -- I think I can make money.' I went to Rutgers, which is where I met Ralph Bowen and Kenny Barron among others. But college just wasn't the thing for me. I stayed there about a year, and then decided I wanted to play. A friend got me a gig in a Philadelphia club called the Blue Moon, which is closed now, leading the jam session every Monday night. I did that from the end of '93 to '96. It gave me a lot of training, learning tunes, playing with different groups, organizing my own bands, learning to make this business work for me. From college, I never went back home."
Captain Black reunites some of the world-class musicians who played on the sessions Evans led. One is Ralph Bowen, his teacher at Rutgers. "Bowen taught me most of what I know about theory," Evans says. "It's like he knows everything, has all the answers. His musicianship is top-notch, and everybody at the session knew it; they'd wait to see what he'd play next. About two years ago I called Bowen to do some little itty-bitty touring, he came on the bandstand and realized, 'Oh, this isn't the same Orrin I knew back at Rutgers.' We've been playing together since then. Everybody knows him as a tenor man, but I've persuaded him to pull out a couple of the other horns and play them, along with clarinet and flute. He's been trying them all."
Be forewarned that it's Bowen, not young lion Antonio Hart, who plays the jaunty alto solo on the quartet title track, an AABBA swinger with a timeless quality. "Antonio's jaw dropped when Ralph popped out the alto," Evans laughs. Bowen contributes soprano solos on Big Jimmy ("a burnout tune with a bunch of hits that you have to play over") and Don't Fall Off The L.E.J., while he contributes soulful tenor to Evans' remarkable ballad, Come and colossal saxophony on the way up-tempo Four.
Tenorist Tim Warfield, leader of three Criss-Cross sessions, also played on Just In Time. "Tim has always been there for me since I met him; at one point he was like a mentor. To me he's the Luther Vandross of the saxophone -- he has the woman appeal. He has the most beautiful sound when he's playing a ballad, then the harshest sound when he's trying to dig into it -- but still pretty."
That the ferociously musical Ralph Peterson is Evans' drummer of choice tells you something about the pianist's bodaciousness. "Ralph isn't just a drummer," Evans emphasizes. "He's an excellent musician. He plays the hell out of a trumpet, he's an excellent writer and a great teacher. A lot of people don't understand his concept of drumming; like, .oh, man, he plays right through you' -- but that's not true. Ralph is constantly listening. He's playing a bunch of stuff, you'll go DOO-DOOT, and out of nowhere his bass drum goes DOO-DOOT. Ralph lived in Philadelphia for a while when I was working at the Blue Moon jazz club, and someone told me he wanted a pianist to do a gig with him and Charles Fambrough. Though I wasn't really ready for it, I did the gig, and since then we've been close. Playing with Ralph, I learned to play in different time signatures, 7, 9, and all that kind of thing.
"I met Avishai Cohen (currently with Chick Corea's Origin; pre- viously with the Danilo Perez trio) when we played together in Ralph's Hip Pocket Trumpet Band in Philadelphia. Avishai is a very rhythmic player, and he would key his lines to what Ralph was playing, whereas Rodney Whitaker swings -- he walks -- and had more of a conversation! Both are great, and brought out different things in me and in Ralph."
Antonio Hart's alto saxophone is featured on My Romance ("Ralph Peterson elongated the measures; his arrangement lets it breathe") and in dialogue with Ralph Bowen on Come ("I wrote this in a hotel lobby, longing for someone special to come there; it's an AAB tune all in 4, but the way the beat lies it doesn't always feel like 4/4 -- on the vamp at the end of the tune it seems like Bowen and Hart are both telling each other a story").
"I knew Antonio from the Roy Hargrove albums, and he was one of the first musicians I met when I arrived in New York," Evans states. "He's an excellent musician. Everybody else had played these tunes, including Avishai, in at least one concert with my band, whereas Antonio had done none, but he came in with one rehearsal, really nailed the music, and did it like he meant it. Very professional."
The redoubtable Sam Newsome became exclusively a soprano saxophonist a few years back (his early '90's Criss-Cross session, Sam I Am, on tenor (Criss 1056 CD), is a label highlight), and he's gigged with Evans since the pianist moved to New York. He solos on a way stretched-out Four, which shows you what Evans is looking for in performance. "I like to play free, with nothing premeditated, like Herbie Hancock did on Inventions and Dimensions. I don't mean totally free; it's free with structure -- structured confusion. That's how I look at the Plugged Nickel recordings. They decided to see how much they could play and all come out together, still keeping the basis of the tune.
"Most of my stuff is based on a form. We could be playing a 12-bar blues, but it doesn't sound like a blues to you. That makes it fun. As Sam put it, the whole point is to play yourself into a box and discover how to get out of it. The hip thing is to hear everybody hit BAM!! after going outside, because we're all counting. It's like a restless unconscious."
Asked about compositional inspirations, Evans answers: "Any composition I wrote after 1997 is an extension of my piano playing. Any composition written before '97 -- which are most of these tunes -- suits a person, someone I had in mind at the time. You can see the way I play in tunes like Don't Fall Off the L.E.J., because I like to play with time. It's 24 or 25 bars, with two bars of 7 at the end, and then a figure that says, 'Don't fall off the ledge!' Every time you finish your solo, you have to remember to not fall off the ledge. And with the stuff Ralph's playing behind you, if you don't count those bars, it's easy to fall off! L.E.J. is the initials of a friend who if either of us says the wrong thing, we're going to get into an argument -- one of those tightrope friendships. The tune isn't about solving a musical problem; it's about that person."
In an album devoted primarily to composition and ensemble interplay, Evans plays an unaccompanied solo on Calvary, the spiritual. "My mother used to sing this all the time in concerts, and I knew it as I Want Jesus To Walk With Me," he remembers. "Later I heard Shirley Scott play it when Tim Warfield was in her band. Tim reminded me what it was, and I brought it to the studio. I knew the tune enough to get through, and I hope the listener gets what I got from it."
Evans concludes: "I don't expect anybody to come in, read my music and sound like me on their instrument. The key thing is for everybody's personality to make up the band. This may sound like a person with a big ego, but I always introduce each member, and at the end I say, 'Together we make up five people playing great music.' That's how I look at the musicians I had on this date. A lot of younger musicians get a record date and use all young musicians. I like to surround myself with knowledge and experience, so that I learn and grow."
WKCR-FM, NYC; Downbeat.
Criss Cross would like to thank Yamaha New York for providing the grand
piano for this session.
Gerry Teekens, Producer