In the booklet notes for Orrin Evans’ second album, Captain Black, recorded in 1998, the pianist, then 23, made a remark that encapsulates the aesthetic he’s followed ever since on his kaleidoscopic artistic journey. “I go head-first for a lot of things,” Evans said. “I like to stretch out. Wherever the music takes me, I’m going there.”
That attitude backdrops the title of Evans’ 20th album, Magic of Now (Smoke Sessions), which documents a livestream engagement at Smoke Jazz Club during the second weekend of December 2020. Evans and a multi-generational cohort of A-list partners – first-call New York bassist Vicente Archer; iconic drummer Bill Stewart; and dynamic rising star alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, now 23 himself – generate an eight-piece program that exemplifies state-of-the-art modern jazz. From the first note to the last, the quartet, convening as a unit for the first time, displays the cohesion and creative confidence of old friends, mirroring the leader’s predisposition for finding beauty in the heat of the moment.
As he does on five prior albums for Smoke Sessions, eight self-issued albums on Imani Records (his imprint), and earlier recordings for Criss Cross, Palmetto and Posi-Tone, Evans guides the creative flow from the piano, showcasing his authoritative mastery of his instrument and deep assimilation of the fundamentals. A deft tune deconstructor, he traverses a broad timeline of the vocabularies of swinging, blues-infused hardcore jazz and spiritual jazz/avant garde jazz traditions, as well as the Euro-canon, with the intuitive spontaneity of an ear player. He projects an instantly recognizable sound, sometimes eliciting flowing rubato poetry, sometimes evoking the notion that the piano comprises 88 tuned drums. It’s taken a while, but the jazz gatekeepers have noticed – in 2018, Evans topped the “Rising Star Pianist” category in DownBeat Critics Poll, and a feature article about him appears in DownBeat’s September 2021 edition.
Evans’ stylistically polyglot compositions – influenced by the expansive, individuality-first Black Music culture of his native Philadelphia and by a decade playing Charles Mingus’ beyond-category music in the Mingus Big Band – similarly postulate an environment of “structured freedom” that instigates the personnel to push the envelope in all his multifarious leader and collaborative projects.
In none of Evans’ units of recent years is that no-holds-barred attitude more prevalent than the Captain Black Big Band, a communitarian-oriented ensemble whose fourth and latest album is The Intangible Between (Smoke Sessions), preceded by Presence (Smoke Sessions). Both earned Grammy nominations.