By Shaun Brady
Pianist Orrin Evans likes to refer to his extended music family as “The Village.” It’s an inviting and inclusive term that encompasses not only his ever-growing list of collaborators but his mentors and protégés, fans and friends, inspirations and supporters. It’s that Village that has carried the Captain Black Big Band from its raucous origins at Chris’ Jazz Café nearly a decade ago to a Grammy nomination for its third album, Presence (2018). To follow up that success he reconvened the ensemble to record his latest, The Intangible Between, in a truly communal spirit: inviting a roster of longtime and newfound compatriots, laying out a buffet spread and essentially turning a recording session into a family reunion.
“It really matters when you know you have a tight-knit circle, and that you can rely on your circle for whatever you need,” Evans says. “The Village is a unit of people that you can trust and that love you. It’s an open door to the possibilities of knowing that you’re part of something for the greater good.”
It also explains why Evans has remained such an integral part of the Philly scene even as his profile has risen well beyond the city limits. Granted, it was more than two decades into a rich and prolific career when DownBeat awarded him top prize as “Rising Star” pianist in its 2018 critics’ poll, and the New York Times acclaimed him in a feature profile, but the Trenton-born pianist worked unflaggingly long before those accolades rolled in.
Evans moved to Philadelphia in the mid-80s, at a particularly flourishing time for the city’s jazz scene. He was nurtured by the outstanding crew of regulars at Ortlieb’s, including Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts, Mickey Roker, Eddie Green and others. At the same time his high school peers included such future greats as Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco, the Landham brothers and the Eubanks brothers.
The string of albums that Evans has released since his 1995 debut have strived to engender meetings between legends and up-and-comers, Philadelphia cohorts and marquee names, always with the goal of igniting the unexpected. In addition to his own ensembles, he brings a similar spirit to the collective trio Tarbaby, which unites him with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits, and through his reinvigorating role in the long-running trio The Bad Plus, with whom he’s now released two acclaimed albums.
As Evans sums it up, “My concept is allowing for the unknown to happen. I don’t go into a project shaping the music conceptually. I just get excited about the possibilities of what’s going to happen – and then see what happens.”