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Orrin Evans Releases 'Flip the Script'

Angelika Beener
Staff Writer
angelikabeener[at]gmail.com / @alternate_takes

At an impressive nineteen albums in, pianist Orrin Evans sets out to do exactly as the title of his latest suggests. Flip The Script (Posi-Tone), out this month, refers not only to a last-minute repertoire overhaul just before the recording date, but the turning of a new leaf in his career and personal life.

One of the boldest voices in the BAM (Black American Music) discussion, Evans is helping transform what he describes as, “this vision that certain people have in terms of what this music is supposed to be or who I’m supposed to be.” It’s hard enough keeping up with the Philly-bred pianist, let alone pegging him, which I wouldn’t recommend. Evans is a hard working composer and band leader -- of both his trio and distinguished big band, Captain Black -- a teacher, and a member of the group Tarbaby with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits. The husband and father of two, Evans is also reveling in the next phase of life with his wife, Dawn, as their children approach nest-leaving age. “Dawn and I are finally like, ‘Hi, hey what's your name?’” Evans jokes of their increased freedom, “because we spent the first 17 years of our lives raising kids, and it’s now like wow, let’s go out! Let’s hang! I’m ‘flipping the script’ in all aspects of life.”

On his sixth trio record, Evans, with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards, puts forth a gutty, undaunted project. Flip The Script comes out swinging -- both literally and figuratively -- with a refreshing collective intensity, which Evans contends is a lacking component in some of today’s piano trios.

“I’ve always ran from trio records,” admits Evans, “and my goal is never to sound like all these other trio records. They can be a little boring. So my goal is to basically figure out how to do it and get a different vibe from it. I used to listen to Keith Jarrett’s trio all the time, then I started checking out Jaki Byard, and Herbie and McCoy...all of them sound different, and my goal was to sound more like that versus some of these newer trios that can sound like background music. They can be very contrived.”

Edwards and Wolfe are beyond formidable on this record, and despite never recording together, their sound is as tight-knit as a most established group. “Donald I met almost 13 years ago, and he was a recommendation from Tim Warfield,” explains Evans. “Ever since then, we have been playing together. He ended up playing with the Mingus Big Band, and we just ended up playing in many different surroundings together. The thing is, we’d never had the opportunity to document together; the opportunity never presented itself. We played together on other people’s records, but this is the first time we’ve done a project together as a group. With Ben, I played a gig at [the jazz club] Smoke and I called Donald for it, and I said, you know what, I am going to use Ben Wolfe, who I had never played with. We knew each other but I never played with him. Through the wonderful world of Facebook, I said, ‘We should do something.’ Not only has he become someone I really enjoy playing with, but he’s become a very good friend.” Wolfe has also positioned himself as one of the prominent pro-BAM movement voices, and sat alongside Evans on a panel at Birdland earlier this year.

The range of music in this collection is a window into the various driving aspects of the passionate pianist. “All these songs are pretty much about starting over,” he says. Evans contributes six standout originals, with “Flip the Script” being among those written just days before recording. “The Answer” is a gorgeous waltz which shows a more tender side of the pianist’s compositional spectrum. The Luther Vandross-penned “Brand New Day” from the 1978 movie classic The Wiz, is an example of Evans’ exploration of the R&B songbook and an aptly titled declaration, which is reconstructed into a modal exaltation, as inspiring as the original.

Among many impressive moments, Evans also performs a solo piano “homegoing” take on the Gamble & Huff R&B anthem “The Sound of Philadelphia”, otherwise known as the Soul Train theme song. Slow, somber and haunting, Evans closes the album with a powerful reminder of the indelible influence of Don Cornelius on black music. “It was ironic that both Dick Clark and Don Cornelius passed right next to each other,” says Evans, “and then also how Don checked out and there was nothing really being said to me about it...there wasn’t enough. I mean, how many magazine covers do you remember with Don Cornelius’ face on it when he passed? How many featured articles can you remember? But the real deal is, without Don Cornelius, none of this other shit would have happened. Like, you really want to get into BAM? We wouldn't even be having an argument about BAM without Don Cornelius, and we kind of just swept him under the rug, in my opinion. It’s like, that’s all you’re going to say? Oh, y'all are done? And so basically I just wanted to do my little tribute to him.”

Increasingly, Evans’ statements away from his instrument are proving just as illuminative as those across the span of his fifteen year recording career, and after nineteen releases, he seems more assured than ever -- both in his music and his individuality.

“Thank God honestly, that all the gigs I’ve had have been gigs where I’m not on the road for two years straight or something,” Evans reflects. “I’ve had the weird blessing of not working at times, which has given me time to focus on Orrin Evans.”

Orrin will perform "Three Shades of Orrin" at the Jazz Standard in New York City, July 17 - 19

Angelika Beener is the creator of and writer for Alternate Takes, a progressive music blog which takes on jazz within a variety of social contexts. She is an award-winning producer and host with awards from The New York Association of Black Journalists and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Follow her on Twitter.