The “evolution” referenced in the title of Evans’ second disc for Smoke Sessions has been on display for a while now. From his Criss Cross albums to his Posi-Tone joints, the pianist has conspicuously worked out ideas about flux and flow, and with each new project his eloquence advances. But I’m thinking the fruits of that labor have never been bundled together with the kind of impact that emerges on “Oneself.”
Here it’s Christian McBride and Karriem Riggins pinging the 40-year-old bandleader with the kind of nuanced provocation that really sets him off. The deep swing of “Tsagli’s Lean” is enhanced by Evans’ decision to throw a series of melodic frags into the mix. Seemingly choppy, they coalesce through playful insight. The syncopated accents of “Jewels & Baby Yaz” take him to a similar spot, a place where each clipped piano phrase dusts off the welcome mat for its follow-up. “Oneself” is a long read – 18 tracks in total. Yet there’s focus in all that gear-shifting, and each performance is enticing enough to defend its inclusion.
“Autumn Leaves” is all about esprit and has as much to do with Ornette Coleman as it does Erroll Garner; “Wildwood Flower” is an expressive abstraction marked by a hymn-like essence. “Iz Beatdown Time” is built on grace and silence, but has a glitchy heart. Refracting “All The Things You Are” three different ways, proving how nu-bop is nourished by a mélange of trad and out, tipping the hat to both Grover Washington and the Carter Family – flaunting latitude and bending orthodox grammar serves the music well.
Evans was a daring adept when he busted onto the New York radar in the late-90s. Now he’s a revered ace, serving up a fluency that stands very tall. That evolution ain’t over by a long shot, but at this particular juncture it’s a blast to watch him map the artistic coordinates between blues, force and motion.