in performance: orrin evans trio

Orrin Evans. Photo by John Abbott.

It was understandable that the Orrin Evans Trio’s brief but exuberant performance at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center on Friday evening arrived with a set of comparison standards.

Pianist Evans played here as recently as December as the newest member of The Bad Plus, the Minneapolis collective with a genre and generation busting blueprint for what a piano trio should sound like. His return visit this weekend, which kicked off the third season of the Origins Jazz Series (the Bad Plus date was also an Origins booking) had Evans fronting his own trio, one rounded out by fellow Philadelphians Alex Claffy on bass and the very inventive Chris Beck on drums. So anyone who caught The Bad Plus over the winter might have been looking for stylistic or compositional similarities with Evans’ group. After all, piano trios all sound alike, right?

Not even remotely. While both groups operated within an exclusively acoustic framework, The Bad Plus utilized a more modernistic approach of slicing its sense of swing into ribbons that, once reassembled, often possessed a pacing more akin to hip hop and even techno than jazz. On Friday, however, Evans grabbed trio basics by the throat and took giddy delight in pumping them full of modal mischief and pure physicality.

Throughout a surprisingly short program that barely clocked in at over an hour, Evans was something of a prizefighter taking on long bouts of rhythmic drive built around a thick, percussive sound that fell somewhere between fun and furious. Heavy, punching runs by the left hand were embellished by Beck, whose sense of performance stamina was every bit as animated as the spirit fueling Evans’ playing. Bassist Claffy served as mediator, offering discreet, durable rhythmic support. His solos, on the other hand, were wildly imaginative, operating as lyrically vibrant and balanced compositions all on their own.

The inspiration that popped to mind regularly during the concert was McCoy Tyner, a pianist whose rich tone, modal daring and physical deftness collectively served as a template for Evans’ joyrides on piano.

There were plenty of dynamics, as well. The band shifted into ballad mode halfway through the set, allowing Evans and Beck to open their playing up with a greater sense of delicacy and reflection. Such an instance, however, underscored the program’s only real flaw – a sound mix that placed Evans underneath Beck’s propulsive drive, robbing the audience of some of the program’s more subtle piano detail.

Still, this was a fine outing, a whirlwind of jazz might and joy that burned bright and fast.

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