In the booklet notes for Orrin Evans’ second album, Captain Black, recorded in 1998, the pianist, then 23, made a remark that encapsulates the aesthetic he’s followed ever since on his kaleidoscopic artistic journey. “I go head-first for a lot of things,” Evans said. “I like to stretch out. Wherever the music takes me, I’m going there.”

That attitude backdrops the title of Evans’ 20th album, Magic of Now (Smoke Sessions), which documents a livestream engagement at Smoke Jazz Club during the second weekend of December 2020. Evans and a multi-generational cohort of A-list partners – first-call New York bassist Vicente Archer; iconic drummer Bill Stewart; and dynamic rising star alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, now 23 himself – generate an eight-piece program that exemplifies state-of-the-art modern jazz. From the first note to the last, the quartet, convening as a unit for the first time, displays the cohesion and creative confidence of old friends, mirroring the leader’s predisposition for finding beauty in the heat of the moment.

As he does on five prior albums for Smoke Sessions, eight self-issued albums on Imani Records (his imprint), and earlier recordings for Criss Cross, Palmetto and Posi-Tone, Evans guides the creative flow from the piano, showcasing his authoritative mastery of his instrument and deep assimilation of the fundamentals. A deft tune deconstructor, he traverses a broad timeline of the vocabularies of swinging, blues-infused hardcore jazz and spiritual jazz/avant garde jazz traditions, as well as the Euro-canon, with the intuitive spontaneity of an ear player. He projects an instantly recognizable sound, sometimes eliciting flowing rubato poetry, sometimes evoking the notion that the piano comprises 88 tuned drums. It’s taken a while, but the jazz gatekeepers have noticed – in 2018, Evans topped the “Rising Star Pianist” category in DownBeat Critics Poll, and a feature article about him appears in DownBeat’s September 2021 edition.

Evans’ stylistically polyglot compositions – influenced by the expansive, individuality-first Black Music culture of his native Philadelphia and by a decade playing Charles Mingus’ beyond-category music in the Mingus Big Band – similarly postulate an environment of “structured freedom” that instigates the personnel to push the envelope in all his multifarious leader and collaborative projects.

In none of Evans’ units of recent years is that no-holds-barred attitude more prevalent than the Captain Black Big Band, a communitarian-oriented ensemble whose fourth and latest album is The Intangible Between (Smoke Sessions), preceded by Presence (Smoke Sessions). Both earned Grammy nominations.

A more recent venture is the Eubanks Evans Experience, a duo in which Evans and eminent guitarist Kevin Eubanks extemporize on repertoire spanning Tom Browne to Geri Allen. (Eubanks and Kurt Rosenwinkel, both fellow Philadelphians, played on Evans’ #knowingishalfthebattle [Smoke Sessions] in 2016.) “EEE” debuted in the pre-Covid winter of 2020; they will resume public performance in spring 2022, behind a new recording.

Also on Evans’ 2022 docket are gigs by Terreno Comum, a Brazilian project for which, responding to a commission from the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, he convened bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Clarence Penn along with Brazilians Alexia Bomtempo (vocals) and Leandro Pellegrino (guitar).

Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr. – who played on #knowingishalfthebattle and The Intangible Between – are Evans’ partners in his working trio, which also comprises the rhythm section for the great trumpeter Sean Jones.

Evans is also deeply involved in Tar Baby, a freewheeling unit with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits that has embodied the equilateral triangle concept of the piano trio since they convened in 2001 to make Blessed Ones for Criss Cross. In 2022, the French label RogueArt will release a 2015 Tar Baby recording with guest alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, while Evans’ Imani imprint will release a newer session on which the trio – joined by guest saxophonists Branford Marsalis, J.D. Allen and Bill McHenry – performs tunes from the jazz canon.

Evans and his wife, Dawn, founded Imani in 2001 as a vehicle for Evans to release leader projects that couldn’t otherwise find a home. The label relaunched in 2018, with  the release of albums by saxophonist Caleb Wheeler Curtis and bassist Jonathan Michel.

In creating and operating Imani Records, in organizing  bands that navigate streams of expression outside his wheelhouse, in booking venues from the Philadelphia room Blue Moon (where he ran a Monday jam session from his late teens until early twenties) to the D.C. Jazz Festival (which recently appointed him Artist in Residence), Evans drew inspiration from his parents. His father, Donald Evans, was a playwright and educator who self-produced his plays; his mother, Frances, an opera singer who put on concerts in various alternative venues. 

“I like to make things happen,” is a key Evans mantra. Another is the notion that the broad network of musicians with whom he intersects – including the members of his various bands – comprise an extended family, or village. “I like to connect the dots, get a bunch of people together and see what happens from that mix,” he says, referring to an as-yet unreleased multi-generational Philadelphia-centric project with local saxophone legend Larry McKenna, the late master trumpeter Wallace Roney, and drummer Gene Jackson.

More recently Evans curated the concert series “What’s Happening Wednesdays” at South Jazz Kitchen, which exposed Philadelphia audiences to important national artists; and “Philly Meets New York,” which brought Philadelphia talent to Smoke Jazz Club in Manhattan.

Evans applied both his entrepreneurial and curatorial sides during the Covid summer when he set up Club Patio, a series of livestreamed outdoor concerts in front of his Philadelphia home with the likes of Jeff Tain Watts, Buster Williams, Russell Malone and a host of other luminaries. “It’s simple,” he says. “I love people. And I love community. My door is open. When the pandemic shut things down, I decided to do it on my patio so I could still see people. It’s great to introduce a trombonist from Pittsburgh to a saxophonist from Philadelphia and see them do a concert 10 months later.”

During formative years, Evans – who made his first album, Justin Time (Criss Cross), at 21 – learned about diving into the deep end of the pool in the sink-or-swim milieu of Philadelphia’s jam sessions where world class artists like pianist Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts and Sid Simmons, bassists Arthur Harper and Charles Fambrough, and drummer Mickey Roker served as de facto mentors. During his early twenties he received similarly illuminating tough love from taskmaster leaders like Bobby Watson, Branford Marsalis and Ralph Peterson. Thus nurtured, he’s displayed reverence for legacy and roots by leaving the nest and creating one of his own.

In addition to teaching on the bandstand, Evans has conveyed knowledge in more formal contexts. For a full year, he curated weekly jazz curriculum in Philadelphia public schools, sponsored by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts’ Jazz Standards programming division. For three years he instructed high school students at Germantown Friends School. He’s served on the faculty of Connecticut’s Litchfield Jazz Camp since 2013 (one student was the phenomenal 15-year-old pianist Brandon Goldberg) and the Kimmel Center Jazz Camp, headed by bassist/producer Anthony Tidd (where Evans taught Immanuel Wilkins).

“I’m learning every day,” Evans says. “If someone calls to ask if I have a Brazilian project, I won’t say no. I’ll dive into it, call some great Brazilian musicians and put together a Brazilian project. If someone asks if I have a big band, I’ll educate myself and try to put a big band together. I don’t know how to sit and wait.”