On my recent visit to New York City, I had an unexpected bonus of an extra night of jazz, thanks to my flight back to Kansas City being cancelled. And since I knew that the fine pianist Orrin Evans was hosting a jam session at the Zinc Bar, I had no trouble deciding where I would spend the night, well into the wee hours.
Arriving just as the jam was beginning, I heard from the doorman that the crowd was a bit thin that night--but it was rocking before too long. Evans and the rest of the fine house band (Ralph Bowen, tenor sax; Mike Boone, bass, and Rodney Green, drums) played three numbers before the jamming began. Most impressive was the third, a slow blues by Evans called "Big Small" (on his new CD, Flip the Script). Bowen got good 'n' greasy in his solo, and Evans opened his with churchy chords, conveying a very Sunday morning feel.
As the quartet was playing, musicians looking to jam were signing up on a sheet Evans had just behind the piano. From that, Evans would call musicians up to the stage throughout the evening. I had run into one of those young musicians, trumpet player James Gibbs, in the restroom, where he had sought a place to warm up. Gibbs did a very nice job on It's You or No One, and reminded me a bit of Kenny Dorham.
Also making a strong impression on that number was young tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, who played some very tasty bluesy figures in his solo. Gibbs, Pennicott and the band traded fours at the end of the piece, and I thought for a moment that I could have been at a very hip 1957 jam right then, Gibbs switched to flugelhorn for Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise, with a pretty brash sound for that usually mellow instrument.
As the evening continued, various players rotated in and out of the rhythm section, various soloists were called to the stage, and even a few singers. Evans did a great job of directing traffic...and giving some friendly - and some blunt - advice on jam etiquette as called for. He also departed from the sign up list when special guests were in the house, and two of those guests, pianist Eric Lewis and bassist Ben Wolfe, joined Ralph Bowen and Rodney Green for a burning version of Invitation - as great as anything I heard during my jazz trip to New York City. Bowen just ate up the changes, as Lewis pounded the hell out of the chords. Lewis's own solo began with large chunks of the melody and then built off of those while dropping back into fragments of the melody, was tremendously exciting, especially as he built to volcanic levels (his intensity reminded me of when I saw McCoy Tyner at a fairly close distance in the 1970s, but here I was just a few feet away from Lewis, and the sheer physicality of his playing was almost overwhelming).
Lewis, by the way, after getting rave reviews for his jazz playing in bands led by Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Elvin Jones and others, has mostly focused on what he calls "rockjazz" under the name ELEW. But he showed tonight what a great jazz player he is. After the volcanic finish to Lewis's solo, the volume dropped to very quiet for Ben Wolfe on bass, and he was stellar as well, showing both great tone and fleet fingers, and had a fascinating dialogue with drummer Rodney Green.
Yet another special guest was called to the stage next, as Orrin Evans brought up pianist David Kikoski to join Ben Wolfe and Rodney Green, plus the young saxophonist Tivon Pennicott once again. I'd seen Kikoski a few years ago with drummer Roy Haynes and was thrilled at this unexpected pleasure. The band blasted off into Coltrane land with a very up-tempo Lazybird. Pennicott was more than capable on sax, but the highlight here was chorus after chorus after chorus from Kikoski, who was like a man possessed as he devoured the complex chord changes. I kept thinking his solo would be over, but he had more to say - without ever growing dull - and when he finally finished, saxophonist Ralph Bowen jumped in for his say as well.
From there, lots of musicians rotated in and out. While a few didn't do much for me, most were pretty good and some really impressed me. I made a point of tracking those in the latter group down and getting their names and visiting with them a bit. I really dug the piano playing of Emmit Cohen. I later found out he was one of the finalists in the Theloniouus Monk piano competition last year. And also really dug the piano playing of a bookish but very hip-looking young man who had a very fresh and personal style at the piano - found out that was Sullivan Fortner, who is now the pianist in Roy Hargrove's band and has also been in Stefon Harris's band.
I've already mentioned James Gibbs and Tivon Pennicott, and another sax player that caught my ear was Kevin Suppina. On an extended version of Sonny Rollins' Pent-Up House, two women saxophonists were quite impressive: Hailey Niswanger (great to see her in person - I've played both her first CD and her recent release on KPR) and Victoria Mozalevskaya (more on her in a bit). Another highlight was something I have never seen: "trading fours" among not just two, but three pianists, as Evans, Lewis and Forner jumped in and out from behind the piano bench, trading four bar phrases.
Speaking of Orrin Evans, it was great to visit some with Orrin, whom I have admired for years, both for his music and his character. I've been facebook friends with Orrin for quite some time, and his postings on life and society are just as thoughtful and soulful as his music. And it was fun as well to meet his wonderful wife Dawn Warren Evans - we have emailed back and forth over the years. To make a jam session like this work well is no easy task, but Orrin made it look easy, organizing the varied lineups on the fly, giving musicians their due, inviting in special guests, and sometimes pointing out some jam session basic rules that certain musicians seemed unaware of.
Even when the music ended, around 3 a.m., there was plenty of conversation, and fell into one with the aforementioned Mozalevskaya, only recently arrived in New York City. She was born in Kazahkstan, but during her childhood her family fled anti-Russian ethnic violence to a small city in Russia. She had become interested in jazz and had acquired a saxophone in her childhood, and despite the economic struggles of her family, was able to eventually make her way on scholarship to a music school in Switzerland to study jazz. After beginning her performance career in Europe, she had just come to New York City, the jazz capitol of the world.