Orrin Evans is a multi-faceted band leader, mentor, host, and musical organizer, besides being an esteemed pianist and composer of contemporary jazz. The Magic of Now is his 20th album as a leader and the sixth for the label, Smoke Sessions. As the title suggests, Evans is a forward-thinking player who brings unexpected harmonic and rhythmic ideas. He’s generous, allowing plenty of space for his sidemen to stretch out. He’s not afraid to make major career changes either. He recently ended his 3-year stint with the popular trio, The Bad Plus, who often played to arena-size crowds, rare for most jazz groups. Evans is choosing instead to focus on musical projects under his own name. Evans plays in several configurations and notably leads the Grammy-nominated Captain Black Big Band whose The Intangible In Between made the Glide Jazz 20 last year.
The Magic of Now was recorded in the cramped confines of SMOKE during the second weekend of December 2020, (note Evans adorned in a Santa hat in the inside jacket) as Evans put together a group he had long wanted to record with, comprised of acclaimed veterans and a youthful rising star. They are in-demand bassist Vicente Archer, renowned drummer Bill Stewart, and 23-year-old fellow Philadelphian, alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. Wilkins’ 2020 Blue Note debut, Omega, was named the number one jazz album of 2020 by The New York Times and most assuredly had a spot in the Glide Jazz 20 as well.
This is the first time this quartet convened for any performance although Evans had individual history with each of the players. Gigs with the rhythm tandem date back to 2013 and Stewart played on Evans’ Smoke Session 2014 Liberation Blues. Evans first met Wilkins when the saxophonist was only 11-year-old at a summer music camp. They first played the Smoke Jazz Club in 2018 when Evans organized a series called “Philly Meets New York” and last summer when Wilkins often played at the self-produced home-based “Club Patio” series (which is again underway this summer).
Evans composed half of the six originals with Wilkins penning the other half. The one cover is the opening Stewart/Mulgrew Miller medley “Mynah/The Eleventh Hour.” Evans points to an appreciation of Wilkins’ compositional skill, having played some of his tunes at Club Patio. Wilkins has a beautiful tone, and a full command of the alto range such that at times, one may think they are hearing a soprano or tenor. Evans chose Archer for his aggressive style and Stewart, for among other reasons for his cymbal choices the way he tunes his snare and bass drum. You’ve likely heard Stewart and Archer on recent recordings. Both have played on John Scofield’s recent albums, and with Nicholas Payton. Archer has also recorded often with Jeremy Pelt.
The Stewart/Miller medley which first appeared on Stewart’s 1997 Blue Note Telepathy opens with a bluesy structure that quickly has the quartet swinging hard to put it mildly. Stewart and Archer lay down a formidable groove which evolves into an up-tempo burner with both Wilkins and Evans pushing to the next gear. Stewart’s cymbal work during Evans’ expressive solo and in his own solo is especially impressive. Evans then delivers one of his older tunes “Libra,” which first appeared on his Luvpark and White Boy, You Don’t Know Nothin’ About No Barbecue. Evans, who comped percussively on the opener, plays with even stronger percussive ferocity here behind Stewart’s insistent beats, perhaps tracing to his tenure with jazz-funk saxophonist Maceo Parker in the ‘90s. Evans’ “Mat-Matt” is also from his catalog, first appearing on his 1999 album Listen To the Band and again on 2010’s Faith and Action. Here it’s a medium up-tempo swinger dedicated to his two sons. The third Evans piece, “Dave,” closes as a pensive ballad as if to let the air out of the room and to reveal a piano style unlike anyone else’s. Listen closely to hear a Stevie Wonder-like cadence.
On the other hand, none of the three Wilkins pieces have been recorded until now. The first is a gorgeous ballad, “The Poor Fisherman” and while Evans may be better known for his inventive, free-flowing, sometimes minimalist, and often an angular piano style, he is a master of ballads too, providing the perfect accompaniment for Wilkins’ impeccable tone. “Levels” begins with Wilkins blowing unaccompanied before being joined by his bandmates in a 5/4 time signature that has Wilkins and Evans in deep conversation before each steps forward for singular statements. Wilkins’ solo is a testament to why he is already acknowledged to be one of the strongest contemporary saxophonists. “Momma Loves” is like modern-day bebop with a couple of extra bars that evoke Monk, as if Wilkins intentionally wrote it for Evans’ piano style, to which Monk comparisons can be made here and in “Levels” too.
Never having played together as a unit, it’s remarkable how locked in these four superior musicians are. This is “in the moment” jazz at its best, as the title indicates.