Photo courtesy of the artist.
Pianist Orrin Evans is seemingly always on the move. If he’s not putting out a new record of his own (he’s released twenty-five as a leader or co-leader in his career), he’s producing someone else’s. Or leading a weekly jam session at WXPN’s World Cafe in Philadelphia, or programming Wednesday night concerts at the club South, just across town.
Evans has had a long relationship with the Gallery, but has yet to play in our new space on Broadway. This Friday, July 15th, we welcome Evans’s quartet, along with special guest vocalist Joanna Pascale, to our stage for two sets. We caught up with Evans this week to talk about his relationship with Ms. Pascale, and his thoughts about his home city of Philadelphia.
The Jazz Gallery: In Joanna’s bio, she writes of how you gave her a debut at your jam session back in the day. Since then, how have you watched her grow as a singer, and how have you grown together as musicians?
Orrin Evans: The period right after that, she went to Temple University while I was still in New York, and we remained connected. A few years later, after she graduated from Temple, she ended up having a full-time residency at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, where she played several times a week for ten years. I got a chance to play with her and watch her grow as a singer and entertainer and bandleader. She employed different people every week for ten years. I watched her learn how to play for different audiences. That room wasn’t a ‘jazz’ audience per se; it was just a hotel. But it gave her a chance to find herself, and prepared her for all the projects that came after that. It’s been a pleasure watching her grow. We’ve played in New York twice together before, but I haven’t played at The Gallery as a leader since it moved, so it’s really exciting to get back there and start playing again, and to bring some musical family from back in the day.
TJG: You recently produced her latest album, Wildflower, right? What was it like working with her on her music in that setting?
OE: It was amazing. It was a labor of love, everybody was there to help and to be a part of the process. That energy is really encouraging and inspiring. Watching her jump into the arena with all of these people was amazing as well. She had never played with Christian McBride, she hadn’t played with Obed [Calvaire], she hadn’t played with Vicente [Archer]. She and Bilal went to high school together, but hadn’t done anything since then. So it was really good watching her do what she does in this foreign territory, for lack of better words. Not that she wasn’t used to the studio, or to playing with different people, but going into a studio with people you haven’t really played with before is a brave thing to do, and she did it great.
TJG: So in the studio, what kind of work were you doing with her?
OE: I played on a portion of it, but aside from that, I look at the producer role as just being there for all aspects of the recording. Paying people and dealing with the busywork so everyone can just sing or play, assisting with arrangements, making sure there were copies: My role was to help Joanna get what she needed, and to help her see her vision and get this record to be exactly what she wanted it to sound like. I would make suggestions on instrumentation and arrangements, and so it’s kind of a full plate. In other roles, you might just be the person in the booth listening to playbacks, but I’m more of a hands-on person, and she really allowed me to get in there and become a part of it.
TJG: So how did you decide to feature her with your quartet at The Jazz Gallery?
OE: We’re actually doing some other work, heading towards Massachusetts and farther north. While we were booking, I said “You know what, I haven’t played at The Gallery in a long time, why don’t we try to pass through there on the way north?” It worked our perfectly. We booked the gig back in October, so talking with you now is kind of putting the pressure on me—I can’t believe the gig is already next week. We’re playing at the Buzzards Bay Musicfest after that, a jazz festival up in New England.
TJG: So you’re back in Philly now. But you’re constantly on the road, and you’ve spent some time living in other places, including New York. Tell me a little about your relationship with Philadelphia today.
OE: Philadelphia is a place that I will always love and respect, because I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve met here throughout the years. I do get frustrated by how people look at the arts here. But my mortgage is affordable, I can park my car, I have a little back yard, my wife has a garden, and I can get to the New Jersey Turnpike in twenty minutes. For those reasons, I live in Philadelphia, but I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with this place. I moved back here almost twenty years ago, when my kids were younger. We moved here so they could go to school here. But now they’re both out of school. Will I move back to New York? I’m not sure. I still love the peacefulness of being able to park my car, and I can get to New York in no time. As far as my relationship to the musical scene here, it’s one that I want to see get better. Will it get better? I don’t know, but I won’t stop trying.