Orrin Evans delights and excels at subverting jazz clichés. A creative dynamo — this is the 20th album for the 36-year-old pianist-composer — he plays mainstream hard-bop that consistently surprises without losing its thematic integrity. On …It Was Beauty, Evans mostly eschews the thunderous chords and dense phrasing that are the McCoy Tyner-like side of his approach. Operating in the trio format that has increasingly become his preferred milieu, the pianist shows off a spatial acuity, block-chording and harmonic sophistication that is more reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal.
It is a softer style that emphasizes beauty, as the title indicates. But don’t underestimate the intellectual rigor at play here. Together with drummer Donald Edwards and four different bassists, Evans leads adventurous, dynamic and genuinely three-sided interactions. It is probably no coincidence that the songs he opts to cover previously featured saxophone players, from Eric Revis’s “Black Elk Speaks” (originally performed by Branford Marsalis on Braggtown) to Bill McHenry’s “African Song” to Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation.” Even Evans’s own “Dorm Life” was fueled by horn players on its three previous incarnations.
In other words, this is beauty with meat on its bones, in which a gorgeous, simple ballad like “Rocking Chair” is less typical than a restless, suite-like composition such as “Commitment.” In his seventh album for Criss Cross, and first since 2005, Evans has thrown another innovative curveball into his prolific catalog.