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REVIEW | Orrin Evans "The Red Door" Smoke Session Records 2023


Orrin Evans, The Red Door, 2023

Smoke Session Records

By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2


For all of his talents, pianist Orrin Evans remains one of the more accomplished but relatively unheralded jazz artists, perhaps because he has never settled down to any sub-genre and composes music that stretches convention, as fans of Evans’ Captain Black Big Band know. More recently he’s known as the guy who lasted two albums with The Bad Plus, a quirky-enough unit that seemed to be perfect for the mellifluously angular pianist and composer. (And his two albums with them are really, really good.)


Now back on his own, Evans has recorded and collected material for The Red Door, opening his world to jazz fans and reacquainting them with singular musicians who created some enticing music during the last three decades, including the deceased great neo-Miles trumpet player Wallace Roney, whose last recording is included here.


The album is a post-bop assortment of personally significant selections, approached both conventionally and obliquely, signifying Evans’ love of tradition and deconstruction, of family, and of friends, here and gone. As a whole, the album may not be as cohesive as some would like—it’s more like a sampler of ideas recorded on three dates over nearly four years—but the individual arrangements and playing will stir the active listener.


To begin, “The Red Door,” originally recorded for The Bad Plus album Activate Infinity, is basically a rhythm casserole with a bright Latin-ish melody. For Evans, the Red Door symbolically represents his reversing a religious symbol representing evil to an opening to discovery. His more prominent band mates—Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Gary Thomas on sax, Robert Hurst on bass, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums—are up to the task, as the composition twists and turns.


Goddaughters are honored on the next two songs. “Weezy” is the first, a modal excursion that mutes Payton’s horn while colored by Thomas’ flute, suggesting a youth in search. “Phoebe’s Stroll,” a trio piece, paints a different picture, more funky and carefree, with the tune building up to something akin to Vince Guaraldi.


I love how the bassists are recorded on The Red Door. They have a presence equal to the piano and generally govern the various tones and moods of the occasion. A good example is one of two recordings from a session from March 2020, featuring a rhythm section of Buster Williams on bass and Gene Jackson on drums. “The Good Life,” more often a vocal feature, is instrumentalized, adorned with one of Williams’ finest recorded solos. And Hurst, one of our finest, acquits himself exquisitely throughout his 10 opportunities.


“The Good Life” and its session partner, “All the Things You Are,” may represent an unrealized album concept, given the honored guests. “The Good Life” features saxophonist Larry McKenna, one of Evans’ key mentors. McKenna’s playing is warm and swinging, setting up Williams’ terrific solo. Wallace Roney’s appearance on “All the Things” is a treat. Funny how Roney’s presence immediately puts the ensemble into Miles Modal Movement; Orrin, Robert, and Marvin adroitly turn into Herbie, Ron, and Tony. It’s great to hear Roney Sr. play one more time.


Another sub-section of the album involves voices, including three engaging females. “Big Small” is a vehicle for the postmodern Betty Carter, Jazzmeia Horn. She proclaims the lyric, a riff on the idea of the proposition “What is a man?” before advancing it again in her Carteresque style, part wit and part defiance. “Amazing Grace,” rendered in a re-harmonization by the late pianist Geri Allen, is sung by Sy Smith, whose singing and acting career has stretched over 25 years; she has been compared favorably to the late Minnie Riperton. (The tribute to Allen continues with Evans’ reworking of Allen’s signature composition, “Feed the Fire.”) The third voiced cut is Stevie Wonder and Yvonne Wright’s “They Won’t Go When I Go,” sung in a duet with Evans by relative newcomer Alita Moses, who won the Montreux Jazz Voice Competition in 2014.


Any frustration with the proceedings is not based on quality; it has more to do with what sounds like a truncated approach to the recordings. My example is “Smoke Rings,” an energized hard bop effort where Payton is positively smoking. But it ends in under three minutes, as I crave more cooking.


Nevertheless, an Orrin Evans album is always worth the time. Given Smoke Sessions’ Katsuhiko Naito’s pristine engineering and the high level of musicianship, The Red Door is a worthy transitional release by one of our singular artists.


Orrin Evans, The Red Door. Smoke Sessions Records, 2023.


Purchase

Personnel:

Orrin Evans, piano

Nicholas Payton, trumpet

Gary Thomas, tenor saxophone and flute

Robert Hurst, bass

Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums

 

Buster Williams, bass

Gene Jackson, drums

Wallace Roney, trumpet

Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone

 

Jazzmeia Horn, vocal

Sy Smith, vocal

Alita Moses, vocal



About Jeff Cebulski

Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at jeff@chicagojazz.com



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