May 29, 2024

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Orrin Evans is building bridges with the DC Jazz Festival 2022: Video, Photos

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

“It’s a dream come true,” Evans, 47, says of the summit. He’s been tailoring new arrangements especially for Reeves and the ensemble.
But if it’s his only spot on the bandstand during the festival (which runs Aug. 31 to Sept. 4 at venues throughout the District), it’s nonetheless the tip of the iceberg for Evans’s involvement. The Philadelphia pianist and composer is serving as the festival’s artist-in-residence, a two-year commitment that runs 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,” DC Jazz Festival Artistic Director Willard Jenkins says. “It was that we would have this engagement that spreads out throughout the year.”

“In that sense, I’m representing the festival,” he says. But he’s also its beneficiary. “It’s also giving the artist a chance to speak that you don’t get in just a gig. I’m learning: not just musical things, but the inner workings, how a festival like this works.”

“We’re learning a lot, and he’s learning a lot,” agrees Sunny Sumter, the festival’s executive director. “That was very much the point: We wanted the artist residency to be a learning experience for the artist as well.”

Evans is not the festival’s first artist-in-residence; bassist Ben Williams had 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. His is the first residency to be a multiyear position.

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

Evans’s work with the DC Jazz Festival has additional support from South Arts, a nonprofit organization with a mission to support artists’ development and increase access to arts and culture. Evans received a $40,000 grant from South Arts’ Jazz Road Creative Residencies program for work with the Captain Black Big Band, which features musicians from New York and Philadelphia.

Artist "Orrin Evans" | HIGHRESAUDIO

Evans has also arranged for some of these musicians — all of them signed to his label, Imani Records — to serve as the house band for an evening jam session Sept. 3 at the Wharf’s Union Stage. These players include bassist Jonathan Michel, piano player 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 work with local musicians. Earlier this year, he performed a dual piano concert with D.C.’s Allyn Johnson at the University of the District of Columbia. He also conducted a program with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and this summer took some of its students to play a gig in West Virginia.

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

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

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

Asked for some recommendations, though, he has an immediate answer. “You can’t go wrong with two of the greatest bassists on the whole planet,” Evans says. “You’ve got 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 that’s the top three, Reeves, McBride and Carter, but that’s a great place to start.”

The Orrin Evans Quartet - SmallsLIVE

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