Pianist Phil Orr is open to and accomplished in many, many different kinds of music, and loves a little bit of everything.
The Hopewell resident is a talented classical musician, and, as minister of music at Calvary Baptist Church in Hopewell, is extensively involved in sacred and liturgical music. As a music educator, he’s been an adjunct at Rider University in Lawrenceville since 1998, and he conducted the university choir from 2008 to 2015.
Then there’s Orr’s love for jazz from numerous eras.
Trained since youth in piano and other instruments, as well composition, music theory and specialized jazz theory, Orr has considerable abilities in jazz. He’d be playing at private events in the central New Jersey area, and people would come up and ask where they might hear him play in public.
“To which I’d say, ‘in church,’ and that was about it,” Orr says.
This seemed to happen more and more, and Orr became irked that there were few places where he and his friends could stretch their musical legs, especially with jazz. Since he only lives a block or so from the Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn, Orr stopped in and spoke to owner Susie Molnar.
“I told her, ‘I think we should have jazz here on Thursday nights,’” he says.
It took a bit of doing — for one thing, the Bistro didn’t have a piano — but Orr worked his magic on social media, and before long a piano was donated to the venue. Soon, the jazz was flowing on Broad Street.
Orr and friends recently launched Jazz On Broad, Thursday evenings at the Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn on Broad Street in Hopewell. It’s a welcoming weekly event that gathers together some of the best local and regional musicians, along with special guests from Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere.
The easy-going evening of music also features a third set which invites interested folks to sit in. On Thursdays March 1 and 8, the Bistro presents Japan-born Akiko Tsuruga on the Hammond organ, with Charlie Sigler on guitar and Jason Tiemann on drums.
Orr’s trio, Front Porch Swing, was the first group to perform at the Bistro on Broad Street, and will do so again, on Thursday March 15 and 22. Orr describes the group as “the slow-cooked, low-stress collective of Danny Tobias (trumpet), Pat Mercuri (guitar), and myself, three lyrical players steeped in the Great American Songbook.”
Then, on March 29 and April 5, the venue will welcome “three soft-spoken giants,” as Orr says, Warren Vache on trumpet, Flip Peters on guitar, and bassist Norman Edge.
“I didn’t grow up around here, so the hard part for me (as a jazz musician) was getting to know the community,” says Orr, who moved to central New Jersey from the New Haven, Connecticut, area about 25 years ago. “I realized that, within a 20 mile radius of Hopewell, there were so many very fine players around, and I thought, ‘these people should get to know each other, converse and play.’”
By initiating Jazz On Broad, Orr wanted to showcase local talent, but also bring in some heavy hitters in to play. “I wanted to put big-timers from out of town on the same footing as local players,” he says.
The musicians are booked for two Thursdays in a row, so if you can’t make it one week, perhaps you can come the next. Or, if you like what you hear, tell a friend, and come back the following Thursday.
“When you get the people to come for two weeks, the performers get to know the audience, and it develops a little buzz,” Orr says.
It’s a reasonably priced evening ($12), a friendly atmosphere, in a nice sized but intimate room that seats about 60 people. “It’s a living room feel,” Orr says. “It’s like a wonderful get-together at your house, but you don’t have to clean up afterwards.”
These skilled musicians are professionals and are hired to play but, “everyone knows it’s for the door (profits from admission), so it’s a little scary,” Orr says. “People have come away with a reasonable amount of money in their pockets, though.”
“It’s been a great audience, a very warm reception on both sides,” he continues. “Sometimes people come because they know who is performing, or they come from a friend’s recommendation. They’re coming to really hear the music, too, which is so gratifying.”
Orr reflects that he’s played countless places where his sophisticated performance was only background noise to people talking or watching a TV.
“It really ups the ante when you know there are discerning people listening,” he says.
Since the beginning of 2017, the Bistro has also been presenting a variety of visual art, with its “Rotating Artists” series, a program that features the work of local artists in and around Hopewell Valley. Currently on display are works by acclaimed Trenton watercolorist Robert Sakson and Hopewell-based co-exhibitor N.J. Devico.
“These two artists will co-share the exhibit for approximately the next eight weeks,” says owner Molnar. “This area is rich with local talent and I’m happy to support area artists by opening my Bistro to their art.”
Born in New Haven in 1956 and raised in nearby Hamden, Orr recalls hearing music on the stereo, radio and television from a very early age. His father, a doctor at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in West Haven, had a collection of vinyl, representing classical music, big bands, jazz, opera, and pop.
“My dad couldn’t play an instrument, he only knew how to ‘play the record player,’ but he had an expansive record collection, probably 1,000 discs, and he meticulously catalogued them,” Orr says. “When he was home, those records were playing.”
Orr’s mom, who had studied nursing, then focused on raising the family, had been an accomplished classical pianist, with about 15 years of first-rate teaching. Orr was only about 5 years old when he sat down with his mom as she played Mozart and Chopin.
Gifted with natural talent and a very good ear, Orr was always encouraged to make music on the bongos, guitar, piano, as well do as his own virtuoso whistling, “playing the ‘puccolo’,” he says. He started a variety of music lessons as well as music theory when he was barely in elementary school.
“I was quite enamored with great classical composers, but also this was when Leonard Bernstein was (presenting) ‘Young People’s Concerts,’ which I watched on TV,” he says. “Even ‘Peanuts’ got me interested in classical music because Schroeder loved Beethoven. All these things had a confluence in my life, bringing music into me, and out of me.”
Orr says he also loved Harry Belafonte’s Caribbean-influenced folk and pop music, and by the time he was in kindergarten, he had listened to and memorized all the Belafonte albums his father played.
Another youthful hero was pianist and humorist Victor Borge, and you can hear a little bit of Borge’s sensibilities in Orr’s dry humor. In addition, Orr absorbed his older brother’s eclectic record collection, everything from Crosby Stills Nash &Young to Dave Brubeck to Tower of Power.
Never drawn to the rock and psychedelia of the 1960s, Orr says he was always more in tune with jazz, R&B, blues, and spirituals.
Orr studied at the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, where he was fortunate enough to learn from excellent teachers. For example, his oboe instructor was Salvatore Amato, once with the NBC Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. He also studied piano, music theory, and jazz piano/theory with top-notch teachers.
He started playing in public when he was only 13, sitting in with older musicians, as well as having fun with his own group, which Orr describes as “a knockoff of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.”
In the mid-1970’s, Orr spent some time at the Manhattan School of Music, then launched a more serious professional career, touring with the likes of late crooner Vic Damone, blues artist Diane Scanlon, and Afro-Cuban jazz man Arturo O’Farrill. This was in addition to Orr’s freelance performances in different genres throughout New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Then around 1978, he had an epiphany: Orr became a Christian, and delved into church music, taking seminars in the subject at Yale and elsewhere, and “studying anything I could find,” he says. “Unfortunately, I soon reached the end of my knowledge base. In 1992, I had a summer session at Westminster, and it was over my head, a real learning curve, so I was intrigued.”
“I figured it was time to do something different, so I matriculated as a ‘non-traditional student’ at the age of 36, and (in 1996) earned a bachelor’s degree in sacred music, organ, and choral conducting,” Orr says. “Then, I got a master’s in music, in composition (in 1998).”
At Westminster Choir College, Orr studied with Eugene Roan, Andrew Megill, and Joseph Flummerfelt, among others. In addition to his positions at Calvary Baptist and Rider, Orr is also the owner and publisher of Orrganized Sound, where he self-publishes choral, vocal, chamber instrumental, and wind band music.
Orr is the recipient of a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and his musical compositions have earned him a variety awards from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). His original pieces can be found on more than ten full-length recordings.
For last seven years or so, Orr has been sharing his flair for jazz in solo and ensemble work, playing private events as well as public shows with the trio Phil Orr and More (Orr on piano, Sean Dixon on drums, and Michael O’Brien on bass), a group that bridges swing, hard bop, funk and pop.
The trio performed at Grounds For Sculpture’s 25th Anniversary Gala, as well as Jingle Bell Jazz 2017 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Lambertville. Earlier this month in Hopewell, they celebrated their own style of Mardi Gras merriment, with “Pardi Gras.”
One other interesting aspect of Orr’s musical life is his semi-regular gig accompanying J. Seward Johnson’s weekly “Sing Along With Sculpture” evenings in Rat’s Restaurant at Grounds For Sculpture during the fall. This is the chance for folks to gather around the piano at Rats to sing standards and Broadway favorites with Johnson, the founder of GFS.
Orr says he’s been playing with Johnson at “Sing Along With Sculpture” since the program’s inception in September 2013. “My piano technician recommended me to an intermediary, I was interviewed, but don’t think I auditioned, and we got started,” he says. “And yes, Seward sings!”
Orr is a widower (his wife died in 2013), and says that now he is in the “third-third” of his life, he’s gone back to the kind of music he was performing 40 years ago. “I’d been so involved with sacred music, but since about 2011, I’ve been reaching back to my roots,” he says.
Of the Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn, Orr says, “It’s kind of becoming a cultural hub. I’m so happy to offer this quality of music at this price, and I know what it’s like to not be able to afford to go out, I’ve had those periods in my life.”
Even if people aren’t aware of the jazz series, Orr likes to imagine that they might be walking around Hopewell, see the sign for Jazz On Broad, and stop in.
Jazz On Broad, hosted by pianist Phil Orr, Thursdays, 6 to 9 p.m., at the Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn, 15 East Broad Street, Hopewell. $12. 609- 466-9889. Phil Orr on the web: philiporrmusician.com and philorrandmore.com.
A version of this story was originally published in the Feb. 21 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper.