Though this review is being published on Independence Day, the title of pianist Orrin Evans‘ latest release has nothing to do with sociopolitical freedom. It’s not about musical freedom, either, at least not if your definition of that idea tilts in the direction of Matthew Shipp, Cecil Taylor, or any other practitioners of hard-line keyboard pyrotechnics.

By titling his album Freedom, Evans is paying tribute to his hometown of Philadelphia. That’s the album’s theme, in a nutshell. The compositions are almost all by Philadelphia natives, including Evans himself; the bassist on the date, Dwayne Burno; Shirley Scott; Charles Fambrough, one of three people to whom the disc is dedicated; and Eddie Green. He also tackles the standard “Time After Time,” written by Jule Styne, and Herbie Hancock‘s “Just Enough.”

The majority of the music is straight trio work, featuring Evans, Burno and drummer Byron Landham. On three tracks, though, the pianist lets a younger drummer, Anwar Marshall, take over, and on two tracks (“Gray’s Ferry” and “Time After Time”) saxophonist Larry McKenna, a figure of some renown in Philadelphia but not really a nationally known player, guests.

Here’s the thing: I like Evans’ playing. Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to his work as an accompanist on Ralph Bowen‘s Power Play and Stacy Dillard‘s Good and Bad Memories, and in each case, he adds a lot to the ensemble and to the music. But piano trios are a major sticking point for me. I just have a hard time convincing myself to listen to them. Another example: Art Hirahara. His work on Nick Hempton‘s The Business (coming out July 5) is great, but his recent trio disc, The Noble Path, did almost nothing for me. Piano, bass and drums aren’t enough. I need more. (Weirdly, I can listen to solo piano all day when I’m in the mood. It’s just piano trios that turn me off.) So I was a little concerned that Freedom would bore me. But it didn’t.

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why, though. I’m finding Evans’ music is resistant to analysis. He’s provided conceptual clues on this record, but there are few, if any, stylistic hallmarks I can pinpoint that make an Orrin Evans record an Orrin Evans record. He doesn’t hammer the low end the way Matt Shipp does, or focus as fiercely as Craig Taborn. He’s not a purveyor of misty nothingness like Brad Mehldau. He’s just a solid, swinging player, and that’s maybe more difficult to discuss than any of the other styles of jazz piano. I like Evans, but can’t say exactly why. I guess that’ll have to be enough, unless and until I can set up an interview with him.

Freedom is a hard-swinging record; “Oasis” gets into some rhythmic territory that verges on salsa or boogaloo. But Evans and company keep tempos and moods changing, switching from ballads to blues to a deceptively simple vamp that gives “Shades of Green” its endlessly captivating structure. His piano style is hard to pin down; it’s not as overtly churchy as some others of his generation (Cyrus Chestnut, say), but neither does it have the phony delicacy of players still in thrall to that other Evans. He’s his own man, finding new things to say in a very mainstream/classicist context. And yes, he manages to hold the listener’s attention all the way through, with Larry McKenna’s two appearances on saxophone serving as a bonus, not a respite from tedium. So yeah, this album is highly recommended. Check it out.

Phil Freeman

Stream the album on Spotify:

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One Comment on “Orrin Evans

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