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'Beauty' On Orrin Evans' Block

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On Philadelphia pianist Orrin Evans' trio version of Ornette Coleman's "Blues Connotation," drummer Donald Edwards and bassist Eric Revis set a New Orleans second-line groove tinged with vintage hip-hop. A beat like that is catnip to Evans, who gets right down and rolls in it. He quotes from Monk and Miles tunes in his solo, keeping the mood light.

Evans' new album is called "...It was beauty." Folks who love Brad Mehldau's gem-like ballads and lucidly developed solos will find a lot to like here. Evans can be a heavy hitter at the keyboard, but this time out, he reins himself in a bit. His latest version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair" is so achingly slow, it takes the trio three and a half minutes just to play the melody. The musicians treat it with extraordinary tenderness, as if afraid the fabric will tear.

But Evans isn't always so delicate. At heart, he's a diehard Philly swinger with a roving, playful side. At the end of his tune "Dorm Life," he massages a two-note piano lick, expands into a three-note nod to Leonard Bernstein's "Maria" over a fat swing groove, then works his way back to the original figure. The bass player in that one is Luques Curtis; in "...It was beauty," Evans tweaks his trio, swapping out bassist Eric Revis a couple of times, as if guests were sitting in during a nightclub set. Two pieces have two bass players, a tricky combination that Revis and Ben Wolfe keep under control. The four musicians treat the ensemble like an interlocking drum choir: Everything is a percussion instrument.

Orrin Evans came in for some rash criticism last year when he said he'd rather not call his music "jazz," preferring the broader term Black American Music. One reason he gave: hoping to see more people in his audiences who look like him. In keeping with that big-tent aesthetic, he closes his album with a luminous take on Andre Crouch's hymn "My Tribute," a favorite of the pianist's mom. In Orrin Evans' neighborhood, the church, the nightclub and the corner all share the same block.

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