Every so often, there’s a jazz concert that represents everything a great concert can and should be. That is, it’s diverse, adventurous, polished and engaging; it has as much invention in its workings of the warhorse standards as in its presentation of new compositions. This was the concert that pianist Orrin Evans put on Friday night at Bohemian Caverns.
How else to describe a jazz quartet whose second song was the old American folk song “Wildwood Flower”? Evans began without accompaniment, rendering it as a quiet, wistful ballad, gradually raising the tempo as bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. joined. When tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen entered, he ratcheted up the intensity and subverted it into darker, more complex territory that released tension as fast as it built. Evans laid out for a long stretch of Allen’s solo, then returned for his own improvisation: a set of joyful variations that channeled the Carter Family’s 1928 recording of the song.
They were just getting started. “Wildwood Flower” was followed by “How High the Moon,” this time shunning the joy that usually characterizes the tune for a troubled, even hurt demeanor. Evans offset Allen’s murky reshapings of the melody with thick, ominous chords that broke bluesy in the song’s bridge, Allen topping him with a dark but surpassingly gorgeous coda.
“Song for My Father” became a dirge, with Evans playing slow piano cascades against a heavy funeral march on Whitfield’s crash cymbal. It felt like waves breaking on the shore. (Afterward, Evans revealed they had played the song for their colleague, drummer Johnathan Blake, whose violinist father, John Blake, had died that day.) Evans’s original “Mumbo Jumbo,” which opened the set, was no less breathtaking, a sheer mass of swing highlighted by clanging rhythmic piano chords and a bass solo from Curtis with a depth and fullness of tone that steamrolled through the packed audience.
For imaginative power, it was hard to beat the blues jam that closed the set: Allen taking a full 18 choruses that featured several riffs, variations on those riffs, then variations on the variations. Even this, though, wasn’t the evening’s peak. That came when Evans’s accompanists left the stage and the subtle but soulful singer Joanna Pascale joined the pianist for an intimate, moody performance of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” This critic avoids the word “perfect” on principle — but Evans and Pascale’s duet was as close to perfect as it gets.
West is a freelance writer.