Orrin Evans builds bridges with the DC Jazz Festival


Pianist Orrin Evans has just one appearance on the DC Jazz Festival’s 2022 lineup schedule — but it’s a big one. On September 2, his Captain Black Big Band performs at Arena Stage in the Southwest with revered jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves.

“It’s a dream come true,” Evans, 47, said of the summit. He devised new arrangements especially for Reeves and the ensemble.

But while that’s his only bandstand spot during the festival (which runs Aug. 31-Sept. 4 at venues across the district), it’s nonetheless the tip of the iceberg for Evans’ involvement. . The Philadelphia pianist and composer is the festival’s artist-in-residence, a two-year commitment through the end of 2023.

“The idea of ​​the artist-in-residence was not necessarily that Orrin would have a dominant presence during the festival itself,” says Willard Jenkins, artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival. “It was that we would have this engagement that would stretch throughout the year.”

Indeed, Evans’ work extends far beyond the Labor Day long weekend. He generates and executes ideas to connect not just with audiences, but with students, fellow artists, the city as a whole, and beyond.

“In that sense, I represent the festival,” he says. But he is also the beneficiary. “It’s also giving the artist a chance to express themselves that you don’t just have in a concert. I’m learning: not just musical things, but the inner workings, how a festival like this works.

“We learn a lot, and he learns a lot,” admits Sunny Sumter, general manager of the festival. “That was really the point: we wanted the artist residency to also be a learning experience for the artist.”

Evans isn’t the festival’s first artist-in-residence; bassist Ben Williams held the position in 2018 and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington in 2019. But as the festival evolves, so does the role, and Evans represents a new phase. This is the first residency to be a multi-year position.

“We decided to do it this way so that there could really be a relationship that builds over time,” Sumter explains. “It allows Orrin and us to grow together.”

Evans’ work with the DC Jazz Festival enjoys additional support from South Arts, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support artist development and increase access to arts and culture. Evans received a $40,000 grant from South Arts’ Jazz Road Creative Residencies program to work with the Captain Black Big Band, which includes musicians from New York and Philadelphia.

A proud, even outspoken, Philadelphian, Evans sees the big band’s presence at the festival as a way to bond his city and the district. “Some of these artists who play with the Captain Black Big Band may not be well known,” he says. “So this is an opportunity to present [D.C. to] musicians they’ve never heard of.

Evans has also arranged for some of these musicians – all signed to his label, Imani Records – to serve as the house band for an evening jam session on September 3 at Wharf’s Union Stage. These players include bassist Jonathan Michel, pianist Luke Carlos O’Reilly and saxophonist Caleb Wheeler Curtis.

But the bridge he wants to build has two sides, and Evans has channeled some of his energy into working with local musicians. Earlier this year, he performed a double piano concert with DC’s Allyn Johnson at the University of the District of Columbia. He also led a program with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and this summer took some of his students to play a concert in West Virginia.

“It’s part of Orrin’s ideas about engaging musicians of different generations together, and it’s going to continue to evolve as Orrin’s ideas evolve,” says Jenkins.

Even with all this work, the festival itself remains an important part of the residency program. The five-day 2022 edition is truncated from the usual 10-day DC Jazz Festival schedule; the festival is still rebuilding revenue it lost during the covid-19 lockdown. The aim is to return to the wider schedule in 2023, which will make room for more of Evans’ projects.

His ensembles range from trios to small bands like Terreno Comun (his Brazilian quintet, which performed at the 2021 festival) and free-form collective Tarbaby (with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits) to Captain Black.

As artist-in-residence, Evans also brings ideas to programming beyond her own projects. In addition to his dream come true gig with Reeves and the big band, he is excited about other performances.

“I’m like a kid in a candy store, to be honest,” he says.

Asked for a few recommendations, however, he has an immediate response. “You can’t go wrong with two of the greatest bass players on the planet,” says Evans. “You have Ron Carter and Christian McBride [who lead bands as part of the outdoor JazzFest at the Wharf component lineups on Sept. 3 and 4, respectively]. And then Dianne Reeves – I dare not say it’s the top three, Reeves, McBride and Carter, but it’s a good place to start.

The DC Jazz Festival takes place from August 31 to September 31. 4 to locations across DC Jump to dcjazzfest.org for a full program. Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band and Dianne Reeves: September 2 at 7:30 p.m. arena scene; exhausted. DC JazzFest at the dock: Sept. 3 at 2 p.m. and Sept. 4 at 1 p.m. at the District Pier; general admission free, seated tickets $89. Orrin Evans Jam: September 3 at 9 p.m. union stadium; $20 to $40.

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