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By John Frederick Moore
Pianist Orrin Evans reflects a more collective ethos on The Red Door, his first record as a leader since breaking away from The Bad Plus two years ago. Working with a core quintet and featuring top-flight guests, there’s an appealing looseness and variety to these dozen pieces.
Evans has a knack for upending expectations. After introducing the title track’s sprightly melody, an ecstatic group improvisation section pits Nicholas Payton’s stabbing trumpet phrases against tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas’ more sinuous lines. Conversely, their take on Geri Allen’s “Feed the Fire” begins with the quintet in free exploration (with Thomas playing flute), gradually building intensity before Evans suddenly cues the group to jump into the piece’s jittery theme. Another highlight is “Phoebe’s Stroll,” the first of three trio pieces, which alternates a funky, gospel-inflected groove (courtesy of drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith and bassist Robert Hurst) with more lyrical passages. Evans’ solo is a master class in using melodicism as a springboard to unexpected territory.
Elsewhere, Evans takes an occasional stylistic left turn. There’s the classic mellow swing on the old pop tune “The Good Life,” featuring a trio of Evans’ fellow Philadelphia jazz legends: saxophonist Larry McKenna, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Gene Jackson. Evans and Alita Moses’ duet on the Stevie Wonder ballad “They Won’t Go When I Go” doesn’t quite capture the righteous, Biblical grandeur of the lyrics, though it does spotlight the up-and-coming vocalist’s considerable talent. The late Wallace Roney represents the most bittersweet cameo on the Jerome Kern standard “All the Things You Are.” Recorded just prior to lockdown — and only three weeks before Roney became an early victim of COVID-19 — Evans’ arrangement showcases the trumpeter’s blistering technique and only briefly reveals the familiar melody near the end.
It’s an album full of contrasts and shifting energies. The thread holding it all together is Evans’ unwavering soulfulness as a musician and bandleader.