I want to start this review by saying that this music is a great comfort to me in a time that is providing few comforts. But that’s a statement I could make about every jazz album I review these days. I’m drawn to comforting music, as I suspect most of us are.
The Magic of Now is pianist Orrin Evans’ 20th album as a leader, and it’s surely one of his best, the statement of a mature artist at 46 years of age. According to the album’s publicity, it coincides with some big changes in Evans’ life; in addition to the pandemic-related changes facing all of us, he and his wife recently sold their Philadelphia home to one of their sons, and in March 2021 Evans ended a three-year association with The Bad Plus to focus on projects under his own name.
What a quartet he’s assembled! A crack New York rhythm section of Vicente Archer on bass and Bill Stewart on drums, and a sharp composer and player who’s half Evans’ age on alto sax, Immanuel Wilkins. (Side note, it’s great to hear an alto in a quartet like this, not that I have anything against tenor.) This date includes three compositions by Evans, three by Wilkins, one by Stewart and a hard-bop classic. These players take this music – a focused amalgam of blues, bop and post-bop jazz, thoroughly modern yet firmly tied to tradition – and come out of the gate on fire. When I said I find this music comforting, I didn’t mean it was soporific!
They launch it with a masterfully conceived and executed medley of drummer Stewart’s “Mynah” (which first appeared on Stewart’s 1997 album Telepathy) and Mulgrew Miller’s swinging blues “The Eleventh Hour.” The former tune is what first drew me to this album with its bracing piano trio setup augmented by Wilkins’ pensive melodic statement. With a seamless transition they lean into the second tune and set it ablaze.
Evans’ first tune here comes next. “Libra” is a delicious slice of soulful jazz that Stewart lifts into the stratosphere with an absolutely driving attack that seems to inspire Evans to improvisatory heights. Wilkins’ “Momma Loves” is a modernist take on a similarly soulful Monk-like territory, once Evans launches it with a powerful keyboard glissando about two minutes in. At times, especially here, Wilkins seems a bit more confident in his melodic sections than in his improvised solos, but he’s definitely on the way.
Stewart’s cymbal and brush work are stupendous on Wilkins lovely ballad “The Poor Fisherman,” and everybody plays their best game on the uptempo 5/8 swinger “Levels.” Overall my favorite tracks are two by Evans, the gorgeous and uplifting ballad “Dave” that closes the set, and the poppy, uptempo “MAT-Matt,” making its third appearance on an Evans album, and this time dedicated to his two sons, now both in their young adult years. And I’ll note that Wilkins’ solo really smokes.
Huge credit to producer Paul Stache, who’s president of the Smoke jazz club whose studios hosted this date. He and these musicians captured some jazz magic, a real inspiration to those of us listening to focus on the now, no matter what we’re doing.
(Smoke Sessions Records, 2021)