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Orrin Evans, Denise King, and Luques Curtis remember April

Earlier this week I checked out a jam session during the happy hour at World Café Live in Philly. Well, it wasn’t a jam session proper because the guy running the show was celebrating his and a number of other musicians’ birthdays. Orrin Evans, local pianist extraordinaire, announced that he’d just let some of his friends—all of them formidable players—take over the jam. What a night! First of all, to my ears, Orrin is one of the most exceptional musicians around. I’ve admired his work for years now: he has an impressive discography and never disappoints musically. He’s one of a group of young and enthusiastic jazz musicians making the scene in Philly these days. It seems the city is teeming with musicians continuing the hard bop train that has been the city’s boast since the 1950s. As an apparent and worthy heir of the family of strong pianists who came of age during hard bop’s reappearance in the 1980s, he’s learned his lessons well, accompanying with rhythmic drive, expansive harmonic conception, and wit.

What impressed me most was that they were playing original compositions together with the standards like Sonny Rollins’ “Pent-up House.” It’s really difficult to hear original music these days—especially on local jazz scenes. But these folk were moving up something as they celebrated the music and each other. One of the pieces was a song titled “Appointment in Milano.” Beginning with an ostinato bass pattern—a driving repeating lick—the song opened up into an infectious melodic statement reminiscent of the high years of hard bop but with a strong nod to Nu Jazz and Neo Soul. I was keen on Evans’ piano work: his Wynton Kelly-esque accompaniment and fills, fluid solo lines that are at once sprite and muscular, and full of humor. Backed up by the excellent Luques Curtis on bass and Anwar Marshall on drums, the sound was natural, relaxed, and fun. One of the elements for which I typically thirst at jam sessions—dynamics—flowed easily, as the musicians listened to one another and took the piece in surprising directions. With trombonist Stafford Hunter on trombone and Spelman graduate Tia Fuller on alto killing the front line, there was nothing else to do but order some more wings and enjoy.

Denise King, the divine one from West Philly was there chilling in the audience, and with a little prodding, did what she does best: give you what they call in the business “a solid” as she sang “I’ll Remember April” in her own inimitable, joy-giving, up-side-your head way. Orrin Evans has a new CD out. Look for a review on this blog soon. In the meantime, for those who weren’t there, you missed a real nice set. The grooves were locked and loaded, the cake was cut, and the party was on.

Dr. Guy