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Orrin Evans: #knowingishalfthebattle

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Pianist-composer Orrin Evans expands his usual lineup here, adding guitarists Kevin Eubanks and Kurt Rosenwinkel to the mix. From the moment Eubanks enters (on “Calls,” the second track), he wastes no time taking things into fresh sonic and harmonic territory, chording and firing off single-string leads with spiky toughness. Rosenwinkel makes his initial appearance, showcasing trademark snaky, wide-interval leaps and sweet-sour tone, in “When Jen Came In,” the following piece. Some of this set’s most sublime moments come later, in the interplay between Rosenwinkel and Evans in “Chiara”; an obvious point of reference would be Jim Hall and Bill Evans, although Orrin’s ballad style has more sinew and emotional resilience than Bill’s did, even as the overall mood of introspection remains dominant.

Evans, as usual, shows a strong Monk influence, but, also as usual, he uses this as a starting-off point to forge ahead in his own voice, not as a crutch. Saxophonist Caleb Wheeler Curtis negotiates taut, bop-flavored contours with a meld of Desmond-like coolness and blues-toughened acerb; the various rhythms and tonalities of bassist Luques Curtis and Mark Whitfield Jr., understated and tasteful, further deepen the complexity. Vocalist M’Balia Singley might be an acquired taste, but her eccentricities eventually prove endearing. She seems to struggle to bring anything new to the pedestrian melody line of David Bowie’s “Kooks,” but by song’s end she and the band have prevailed and taken it into realms of genuine improvisational freshness. “That’s All” finds her apparently resisting conventional ballad tropes, quirks that seem grating at first but eventually help her to rescue the oft-covered standard from romanticism and bathos.

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