Photo courtesy of the artist.
When COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic in March 2020, trumpeter Peter Evans was in Lisbon, Portugal. He was supposed to be heading back to the US for a tour in support of his new record featuring the band Being and Becoming. With those dates cancelled, Evans remained in Lisbon, and began an unscripted year of new projects and big life changes.
This Thursday, June 24, Evans will return to The Jazz Gallery with Being and Becoming, belatedly celebrating the release of the group’s self-title debut album.
Not resting on their laurels, Evans and company will present a whole new set of music, freshly-commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble. We caught up with Peter to talk about the year’s impact on his writing and playing—a story of improvisation on and off the bandstand.
The Jazz Gallery: I saw Wynton Marsalis’s first live gig since COVID a few weeks back. At one point, he joked about how he was talking more in between the songs because he needed to give his lips more rest! And then Jacob Garchik has joked that 2021 is going to be the “year of the clam.” So I was curious—how are your lips physically? Have you found yourself really needing to build back up into live performances?
Peter Evans: I know that everyone’s had different experiences during COVID—I don’t want to take anything away from that. My personal experience in terms of music and playing has been positive. Minus the financial problem of not being able to do what I normally do to make a living and having to fill those gaps in, I’ve enjoyed this. This isn’t my first gig in a year—I’ve been lucky that I’ve had almost symmetrically-placed opportunities to present my music in public since last July.
I was living in Lisbon, Portugal when this all started to go down. It was cool because I was touring a lot in Europe and I was able to use that as a base. When everything shut down in March, I was supposed to come to the States and that didn’t happen. It took me a couple of days to adjust, but then I was like, “Alright. I want to write a piccolo-flute piece that’s been on my mind for months now, so I’m going to sit down and do it.”
TJG: Did you find yourself practicing in a different way because there wasn’t a deadline for a specific show or piece?
PE: I was able to practice the way I really want to practice, which is more of an open-ended, investigative mining of material. It’s rare that I get like a prolonged amount of time to actually do that.
When it comes to writing, I don’t mind having a deadline. In January, I did a show at Roulette with my other band with Mazz Swift, Levy Lorenzo, and Ron Stabinsky. All of that stuff is really elaborate. When I get asked to do something, I take it pretty seriously. I write a lot of music, like maybe 80, 90 minutes’ worth of stuff and we rehearse and we fine tune it as best as we can under the time constraints.
In April, I had an opportunity through the International Contemporary Ensemble to do a thing with Being and Becoming, and so that was the same thing with writing new material. At first, I thought I’d write five, six little ditties and we’ll just blow through them and it’ll be really simple. That didn’t feel honest or responsible to myself (or the band) in the end; I ended up writing a whole bunch of new music, mainly two multi-movement suites. One is inspired by the Islamic prayer tradition of Salah, the 5-times a day prayer cycle, and the other is inspired by the European Medieval scholastic tradition of the Quadrivium, and that piece is dedicated to McCoy Tyner.
We filmed and recorded all that and it’s going to be a video stream. It’s weird because we’re in this period right now where there’s COVID-type gigs happening and then live gigs happening all at once, which I think is interesting. After this Jazz Gallery gig, five days later there’s the broadcast of this other Being and Becoming project we did for ICEensemble.
TJG: I was curious whether you’d have a new book for the band, or if you’d go back to the material on the record, since that came out last April and you didn’t have the opportunity to do the supporting tour.
With the kind of exploratory practicing you were able to do last year, did that inform the material you’ve written more recently? In a previous interview you talked about how your writing for solo and ensemble performance were converging. Did that continue with your focus on individual practice this year?
PE: Yeah, I think things have changed since that interview in the last few years or so. Now what I do is write away from the trumpet—I try to write away from instruments entirely. The kinds of materials and methods of manipulation that I practice are the things that I’m trying to ingest and hardwire into my system as a trumpet player, as an improviser. However, they are all essentially compositional devices. You don’t really need to have a trumpet in hand to access those.
I still feel like things are still converging in a nice way, but it’s not forced anymore. I think it’s happening in a way that when you’re doing any kind of creative work, you let the stuff come out of you without judging it without analyzing it, and see the ideas through, and trust that all the practice and the hard work that you’ve done to prepare yourself for that moment will aid you in coming up with something decent. I’m trying to sit in that space. It’s not easy but I don’t think it necessarily should be.
The other day, I finished a piece for a chamber music and composition workshop in New Hampshire where I’m going to play and teach. I’m presenting some pieces and I was sitting there the other night, looking at this stuff, thinking, “What the hell is this?” I think it works—all I can do is go into the rehearsal and feel that at least the nuts and bolts work. The musicians are close friends of mine and they’re all great musicians. So while I feel like we can make it happen, there’s still a lot of nail biting. It’s just letting things happen more than making them happen. It’s a continuous process of trying to shed the layers of the onion and get to something that feels true.