Philly native Orrin Evans talks about paying tribute to a friend in Liberation Blues

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Orin Evans | Photo by Jimmy Katz
Orrin Evans | Photo by Jimmy Katz

It was a time before cell phones when Orrin Evans moved to New York City in 1996 with friend and trumpeter Duane Eubanks. So when he’d meet other musicians on the scene he’d simply tell them, “Call me at Duane’s crib if you need to find me.” The only problem was that Evans and Eubanks had been preceded by another Philadelphian named Dwayne a few years earlier – bassist Dwayne Burno. Evans realized his mistake when he received a phone call from the none-too-pleased bassist, who skipped past the pleasantries and proceeded to play an answering machine full of messages intended for the young pianist.

With that call, the two began a friendship and collaboration that would last until Burno’s death last December at age 43 from kidney disease. He’d struggled with the disease for a decade, undergoing a kidney transplant in 2010. Despite those hardships, Burno enjoyed an impressive career during his short life, playing with a host of jazz greats including Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Betty Carter, Jeremy Pelt, Roy Haynes, Dr. John, Abbey Lincoln, and Nicholas Payton.

Evans saw firsthand what Burno went through in order to continue working during a two-year stint in trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s band. Throughout that period, Burno would lug his medical equipment from town to town, undergoing dialysis during the day and playing gigs at night. “Just watching him go through that, I have a lot of respect for him as a man,” Evans says. “Nothing was going to stop him from playing music.”

With “The Liberation Blues Suite,” which comprises the first half of his new CD Liberation Blues, part of the Smoke Sessions live recording series, Evans pays tribute to Burno with five songs – two written by Burno, one penned by Evans in his honor, and another two which extend the idea of “liberation” in regards to Burno’s passing. “Depending on your belief system,” Evans says, “it’s at least believing that he’s in a better place and not feeling that same pain anymore. Even if you believe in reincarnation and he’s a cat – he’s still not a cat going through dialysis. He’s a cat running around licking himself and scratching shit. He’s totally cool. So he’s liberated from that pain and he feels good. But with that liberation, we miss him and feel the blues.”

Evans will celebrate the release of the CD this weekend at Chris’ Jazz Café with a quartet featuring saxophonist Tim Warfield, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Bill Stewart. Philly-based vocalist Joanna Pascale will likely drop in, as she does on the album where she sings a soulful “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” Only Stewart reprises his role from Liberation Blues, where the band includes saxophonist JD Allen, trumpeter Sean Jones, and bassist Luques Curtis.

That line-up exemplifies Evans’ gift for bringing together members of disparate jazz cliques, as none of the players had worked with each other in any capacity prior to the date. That’s evidence of Evans’ own ability to transcend the narrow definitions that confine so many jazz artists to boxes labeled “in” or “out,” “straightahead” or “avant-garde.” As he puts it, “I like to keep people guessing. Most of the music that I’ve chosen in the last five years is in an effort to make the musicians I hire turn off their contractor hat and put on their musician hat. The dice are in my hand and I want to see what’s going to happen.”

The location of the recording is significant, as Smoke has become a home base for Evans in New York. The pianist’s Captain Black Big Band has played a long-running residency at the club on alternating Mondays, but his relationship with Smoke dates back almost to its founding fifteen years ago. Evans celebrated the release of his 2002 Palmetto album Meant To Shine there, and praises the venue as reminiscent of the Philly club where he honed his craft. “It reminds me of Ortlieb’s,” he says. “To be honest, Smoke has a stage that’s smaller than my bedroom, but when you walk in there it feels like you’re at home.”

The news of Burno’s death was still fresh when the quintet took that tiny stage in mid-January. Evans never intended the album to be a tribute to the bassist, having done recent homages to saxophonist Bobby Watson and Philly legends Trudy Pitts and Charles Fambrough on recent recordings. But those first five tracks emerged in retrospect as a fitting send-off.

Playing Burno’s compositions “Devil Eyes” and “Juanita,” Evans explains, “was my effort to keep some of his tunes alive. Did we do all of his tunes justice? No, we were learning them for the first time. If Burno heard some of them, he might say we messed this or that part up, and that’s fine. But I’m just happy playing his tunes, and I’m happy that his tunes will be heard.”

Despite their shared Philly provenance, Evans and Burno were not well-acquainted while both were still living here. Evans was six years younger than the bassist, a significant age gap during one’s teens and early twenties. But the pianist was certainly aware of Burno and the impressive generation of local jazz rising stars that preceded him. “Burno, Christian McBride, Joey DeFrancesco, Kurt Rosenwinkel – they were a little bit older than me, and they were amazing. I was just starting and I was intimidated, so I was the quiet kid in the corner – which is really weird because nobody can imagine I was a quiet kid.”

Evans’ outspokenness and confidence would come later, and the age difference mattered less by the time he and Burno started crossing paths in New York. Thinking back on that time now, it’s less the music than the man that Evans recalls.

“I think once people pass away, everybody wants to say this person was the first-call bassist or pianist. Dwayne wasn’t everybody’s first-call bassist, for whatever reasons,” he says. “But I think the one thing that will go down in history that is really important is that he was a man of integrity. So when you did call him for a gig, he was gonna be there and he was gonna be on time. When you did see him with his family, he was a stand-up husband and a stand-up father. When he did say that he was your friend, you knew he was your friend. That was more important and still is more important to me than all the other things. In a lot of ways his death reminded me of some things that I needed to fix in life. He stood by what he believed in. and that is what stands out to me way more than anything else.”

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