"The music comes first". Bill Evans' mission statement is one often echoed ad nauseum by musicians, but rare is the band or frontman that can consistently check their egos at the door and actually follow through on this sentiment. However, after a week of his unique brand of Soulgrass at The Blue Note in New York city, that's exactly the impression people left with as they ventured out into the chilly Manhattan night. And really, there is no other way that this melding of styles and musicians could work without such selflessness.
Jazz, rock, soul, funk and bluegrass aren't supposed to work together, especially on this level. Musicians who lead their own nationally and internationally touring bands aren't supposed to be able to get together with such little notice and play as if they've been jamming together for years. Hippies, hipsters and serious jazz fans in suits aren't supposed be seeing the same shows, much less sitting side by side shouting their appreciation together, and yet Evans's group managed to accomplish just that, two sets a night for six nights in a row.
With a cast of musicians that's a veritable who's who of the improvisational music world that included John Medeski, Eric Krasno, John Popper (who played despite having undergone a gall bladder operation five days prior), Jake Cinninger and Evans' own band of crack players (Josh Dion, Ryan Cavanaugh, Mitch Stein, Etienne Mbappe, all amazingly gifted in their own right), it would seem that such an ambitious project could have fallen into the realm of one solo after the other, with players standing back and watching, already thinking ahead to their next spotlighted moment. As the evening wore on, it became apparent that this band was truly listening to each other and feeding off what the other players brought to the table. "At their high level, it doesn't take long for them to meld into what we're doing, and vice versa" Evans told me, "when we all got together, we created something new and fresh which was fun for everyone."
Case in point, Cinninger's composition "Glory" was something that the band learned right before the shows and they ended up playing it at each of his appearances as though they'd been playing it together for ages. Another feat to behold was the Medeski penned number "Junkyard" that began the second sets with he and Evans having a conversation via sax and melodica that resembled giant robotic bees having a passionate discussion about... something... before melting into a fantastically played funk jam clocking in at around 14 minutes.
Evans and Medeski acting as captains seemed to be a common theme throughout the run, with the two leading the band through various peaks and valleys and constantly communicating with each other via their virtuosic playing. Evans recognized this saying, "John is a special musician. He knows how to meld into any situation and create and inspire the rest of the musicians to do the same. He has a certain level of intensity that translates not only to the band members , but to the audience as well. They can feel it. Me and John both like to feel a certain amount of spontaneity with the music to keep it alive."
Evans has been extensively touring Europe as of late and recently signed with the Madison House agency, who is looking to increase his presence stateside. Between sets one night I heard a couple of Umphrey's McGee (Cinninger's band) fans discussing the rather amazing fact that Evans made his bones as a 22 year old playing for Miles Davis and that they were going to seek out those records after seeing the show. I asked Bill about how it felt having his music exposed to a new age group and type of fan, and if this made him feel like an ambassador for jazz and other traditional American music forms. "It's really too soon to tell, I just jumped into this 'States' touring thing as of recently, so ask me that question in a year or two. I hope to open up a few minds and turn these new fans onto some new music they have not heard before... It's kinda crazy in a way. I was always one of the 'young guns' in the contemporary scene... now that I'm not 22 anymore, its interesting. Many of the new fans and people who have been guesting with us were not even born when I was on stage with Miles Davis, John Mclaughlin, etc... that's just the way it goes. I love playing for new young fans. It keeps the music young. I know what Miles was talking about now. Keep it young and fresh and it will grow."
In typical Evans fashion, he also downplayed the unique, boundary pushing nature of his group stating, "My goal has always been to create inspirational music that I am inspired to write and listen too. I get a lot of inspiration from the Americana instruments like the banjo, dobro, fiddle, etc. I am still very much interested in playing with that sound. Those instruments combined with electric guitar, B3 organ, saxophone , etc make for a very rhythmic yet musical sound that I really enjoy playing and writing music for. If it pushes boundaries, that's fine....but that's not for me to decide really and not my intention." That sort of unselfish vision and drive is what makes Bill Evans Soulgrass one of the most unique and rewarding live experiences a music fan is likely to have.
With the band appearing at festivals all summer (Mountain Jam, Suwannee, Peaches among others) American music fans will finally be afforded the opportunity to see the uniquely eclectic band live, and it's one not to be missed. As for the rest of the future, Evans plans are as open as his musical philosophy, stating, " It's what we do. Me and Josh Dion, my drummer, are going to write some more new music. I plan on recording a new album over the next 8 months. Josh is a great singer as well as drummer. Amazing musician. Ryan Cavanaugh is a fantastic jazz banjophonist as well as bluegrass player... Mitch Stein rocks jazz and blues on guitar....Soulgrass is a lot of fun! Stay tuned."
With more performances like this past week at The Blue Note, more and more people will be.
Photos courtesy of Dino Perrucci Photography