Philadelphia pianist and composer Orrin Evans gets loose and tight at the same time
Just days after Orrin Evans concluded his most recent European tour with The Bad Plus — the math-jazz trio whose membership he’s long befriended, then joined, in 2017 — the Philadelphia-based pianist was home, out-and-about, and driving to a solo gig with his own trio in Chicago. One would expect nothing less from the athletic, yet delicately nuanced and intricately introspective player and composer whose self-named outfit (to say nothing of additional Evans bands such as Tarbaby and Captain Black Big Band) fill his mind and schedule when he’s not Bad Plus-ing. Having just hit his actual birthday the day we spoke, Evans reflected on all that he has on his plate ahead of a week-long gig playing with Steve Wilson and Wilsonian’s Grain at famed NYC club Village Vanguard, then European dates next month.
The Key: Let’s start with Bad Plus, as you just finished another tour with them. You’ve been part of them and they part of you for two years. Honestly, how does that process feel and how has it been?
Orrin Evans: It’s weird. Nobody wants honesty – like who leaves the shows first, and who hangs around after the gig the latest, or how are things really. The first year was a learning curve. I don’t think that either of us thought that everything that happened on the first day was great.
TK: The good cheer myth of what a band is expected to feel immediately.
OE: What it is, is just day-by-day we get to know each other. Just like any other relationship. We get to know what works musically about each other.
TK: So who does like to leave early and who likes to leave late?
OE: Me. I like to leave early. I don’t know who likes to leave late.
TK: That’s because you leave early. How do you think you have changed the dynamic and sound of Bad Plus? I believe it is less fussy with you. I think you’ve toughened up their sound.
OE: Though I have witnessed them playing and have toured with them, I don’t know if I really knew every part of The Bad Plus. I wasn’t that person. I do know that I’ve brought every part of me to the proceedings, so I know what I brought. You may be more familiar with what they sounded like without me, so you might know more. I wasn’t worried about changing Bad Plus, rather I just wanted to be in an ensemble.
TK: Considering that you did become part of an ensemble, how did it change how you looked at life as a leader?
OE: That interaction is solid, and those relationship are ones I’ve built for a long time. If anything it’s made me — in a business sense — hustle during the time I have off from Bad Plus, to make sure those bands are still working. It’s made my hustle with those ensembles of mine be more directed and precise, a more direct approach.
TK: You recorded Captain Black’s most recent album Presence between clubs in Philly and NYC, and reduced its membership from what, 17, to nine? You were trying to make it tighter?
OE: We were tight. Very tight. You can always get tighter, but we were there. No, man. It was about not being able to fit on the bandstand comfortably.
TK: How do Philly clubs like South and Chris’ — Smoke too in NYC, as you have regular residency gigs there — figure into who you are now?
OE: I don’t know if it’s the venues per se, but it is the convenience of playing a venue such as their repeatedly over a continuous period of time. We started playing Chris’ at the beginning of Captain Black, and that helped develop our sound. Then we did a year at South and sonically, there was a change from being there. Same with Smoke. It’s just the advantage of something steady. Residencies such as that afford me the luxury of consistency and keeping the band working . Some people may say — not me — that there is a more relaxed energy to playing Philly clubs because you don’t have the anxiety of playing in New York.
TK: Who says that?
OE: People think there’s more pressure playing in New York, but I keep the pressure on always. I want the audience to be happy no matter where I’m playing. Philly. Manhattan. San Francisco. China. Italy. All the audiences are the same.
Orrin Evans will perform with Steve Wilson and Wilsonian’s Grain beginning tonight at Village Vanguard; he tours Europe in May, and then brings Captain Black Big Band to Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival. Details on all Evans’ upcoming shows can be found here.