Pianist Orrin Evans is all about the moment, the conversation within the music, rather than anything preordained or planned.
"For me, the most important thing is the hang, and then the music," says Evans. This weekend, on what happens to be Evans' birthday, he'll share his delectable brand of improvisational chatter with members of his trio (bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.), as well as jazz guitarist and fellow Philadelphian Kurt Rosenwinkel.
"Man, you don't even have to put the word milestone or birthday out there," Evans says with a laugh. "I'm a man looking for a celebration. Period."
Evans is also enthusiastic about his just-finished trio album with jazz drummer Karriem Riggins and an old friend, famed Philly bassist Christian McBride. It will be Evans' 25th album. "We just decided on its title 20 minutes ago," he says, "and I can't reveal it until, like, September, when it drops."
Evans says he has been trying to work with McBride for 22 years - getting their mothers to pass messages between them - as well as with Riggins, with whom he roomed in Manhattan and jammed with on Common's Like Water for Chocolate. "Beforehand, there was very little conversation about what we'd do," says Evans. "Christian and I wanted to do this trio idea. As soon as we got into rehearsal, it was about the spirit of union and reunion, as well as family, the village. There's history, love, and respect, too. If not, I don't even want you on the bandstand with me."
Evans feels much the same toward Philadelphia expatriate Rosenwinkel (now living in Germany) as he does toward McBride. He and Rosenwinkel played together last year in Evans' 2014 iteration of his Captain Black Big Band. "I was just getting into jazz when Rosenwinkel, McBride, Joey De Francesco, and Ahmir ["Questlove" Thompson of the Roots] were already heads," he says of those Creative and Performing Arts High grads. "I learned a lot being a fly on the wall, which will be hard for people to imagine that I was the quiet one."
Although he's a progressive thinker and an inventive musician, Evans was never a fan of jazz guitarists, unless they happened to play rhythm and they happened to be Grant Green and/or Wes Montgomery. "I wasn't about it," he says. "I was intimidated. If I didn't hear you back then, I didn't like you."
At that N.Y.C. apartment he shared with Riggins, their other roommate was Philly jazz trumpeter Duane Eubanks, who told Evans about his brother, guitarist-god Kevin Eubanks. And Evans learned of Philly rhythm players such as Jef Lee Johnson, and then of the funky yet chic Rosenwinkel, whose playing flows smoother than the Wissahickon Creek. "I dug Kurt. He's a cool cat. Now, if a guitarist recognizes his role as a rhythm-section player - like Kurt - I'm probably going to use them. If they're just waiting for their moment to shine - like a horn player - I'm not going to deal with you."
Playing with Rosenwinkel and the trio is a great birthday gift. This ensemble have never before played as one unit. What they do this weekend will be as fresh to their ears as it is to the audience. "I like to think that I'm in the now, always," says Evans. "You have to be open to all tastes, all seasoning. If a recipe calls for oregano and you use cumin, that's going to taste different than what you expected. If you're a limited-palate [person] who only likes one spice, you better know this about yourself and program accordingly. Me, I throw everything in. Ask my wife. When I cook, it's just, 'Let's see what happens.' "