“I Look at Every Concert Like a New Painting”: Bill Evans’ Soulgrass

Bill Evans Soulgrass

When Bill Evans’ marvelous Soulgrass band really gets going – really starts kissing the sky, plumbing the depths and just flat-out jamming – all attempts at description feel at best faux-academic and at worst utterly pointless.

The hairpin improvisational turns, the rich exchanges, the dazzling displays – they’re so absorbing an experience that you’re in a critical Bermuda Triangle before you realize it, chasing adjectives down rabbit holes, promiscuously humping adverbs, mixing metaphors, rambling and dancing about architecture.

But let’s try.

“That spoon, that spoon…”

It’s the late set on the last night of Evans’ recent West Coast run. The setting is an unusual jazz and avant garde music nook called the Kuumbwa Jazz Center whose vibe above all approximates Santa Cruz, the Cali-hippie/beach bum enclave it serves. The downtown itself is quiet, though you can hear the music from three blocks away and the place is respectably packed for a foggy Monday night in September: Bay Area jam freaks who made the trip, jazz heads, the curious, the passing fanciers, the stoned.

The core of Evans’ band, which is at its most basic level a collision of sax-based jazz fusion, R&B and bluegrass, is Evans himself on saxophones, banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh, drummer/vocalist Josh Dion, and for this run, bassist Dave Anderson. They’re ready to hit it, and on this night they’re filled out by two guitar greats, Steve Kimock and Jeff Pevar, and a fiddle master, Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone. What on earth is this going to sound like?

The first number, an Evans original, lights the fuse, but it’s the second where this version of Soulgrass hits its stride. Off the band goes into a heavy, yet supple (maybe?) blues groove and it’s Pevar who gets the call for the first solo. He’s a meaty player who can shred with the best of them and then reveal nuances, subtleties and unusual shades. His solo begins with bleating blues licks on which he begins stacking variations, pulling them apart, and ratcheting up the intensity until minutes later, he’s build his solo into a sound-sheet squall, leaning forward with his whole body and tearing away at a deeply psychedelic fabric that sounds like somewhere between 1967 Grateful Dead and Van Halen on peyote. He breaks, to wild applause, and it’s back to the song chorus.

Throughout Pevar’s solo, Evans and his cohorts have been working out other ideas, throwing a few fills or accents under what Pevar’s been playing or massaging the groove itself. Evans looks to Carbone with a mischievous smile – it’s time for them to joust a bit. Violin and sax play off each other, first tentatively, then aggressively, each musician bending his tone, stretching his sonic palette to sound like the other musician’s instrument. Somewhere along the way, as this thing builds to a wild woodwinds-and-strings sonic explosion, they’re chirping at each other like excitable birds, pushing up, against and over each other.

By this time, you’ve forgotten that the song Soulgrass is playing is “Spoonful,” one of the most recognizable and worked-over blues of the past century. Each improvisational segment follows the song’s verses and chorus – Dion sings the main vocals; the others back him on the “spoon-that-spoon-that-spoon-ful” piece – and then ventures to parts unknown.

Up next is Kimock, a sorcerer who specializes in making the most cerebral, psyche-noogieing guitar excursions feel both otherworldly and accessible, and who for his solo chooses his steel guitar. The others hang back in admiration as he slyly and subtly manipulates tones in a way that’s a bit distant – a bit cold, a bit far-off planet – but so much more interesting than merely peeling off steel licks and letting the instrument’s natural, syrupy tonal beauty do the rest (and he’ll just keep on confounding; later in the show he’ll build a dazzling solo around a tone that sounds like an angry, squawking buzzard).

“Spoonful” is a monster. What you’re left with after all these exhausting displays, however, isn’t any one of the individual solos, duos or extrapolations, nor a sense that this band – with so much going on at all times – can’t quite figure out what it wants to be. In a lesser band with a looser concept, this would be a fun game of pass-the-baton. But Soulgrass’ “Spoonful” itself feels like a whole expression – a gnarly experiment that, even if it veered off-kilter at times, feels worked-through and coming from the full, all-in commitment of its players. There’s a reason, in other words, why everyone on stage can’t cool it with the shit-eating grin.

This sort of thing will happen again and again throughout Soulgrass’ 80-minute set, which leans heavily on material from its 2012 album “Dragonfly” and accommodates any number of styles and genre cross-pollinations. Is Soulgrass a blues-fusion band? Is it a psychedelic country ensemble underpinned by the oaky twang of Cavanaugh’s banjo? Is it a mutated R&B group centered on Dion’s soulful vocals and songs that rollick and expand? Is it jazz?

On this night, yes, yes, yes and yes.

Evans expressions

Bill Evans comes from the jazz world and he logged time with plenty of its canonical figures, including Miles Davis during the legend’s 80s comeback, Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin. But he’s also worked with a who’s who of music greats, from Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger to Les McCann and Ian Anderson. His resume is lengthy; his palette, broad.

These days more than ever, he’s one of the more exciting presences in the long line of quote-unquote jazz players lending their improvisational chops and a wily sense of adventure as not-infrequent sit-in guests of jam-centric rock, blues and country bands. Evans himself has in the past year alone turned up with everyone from the Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule to Blues Traveler, Medeski Martin & Wood and Furthur, though it’s clear Soulgrass remains the purest, most complete expression of what Bill Evans “is.”

That exact attribute – one he shares with musicians like Bela Fleck, John Scofield, John Medeski, Greg Osby, Jenny Scheinman or Nels Cline – is hard to define. But it’s made him a much-in-demand collaborator in a way that the “walls” of those genres don’t so much fall down as vaporize.

Evans himself would never so laboriously overanalyze this. He makes it all seem so easy on stage – always ready to solo or put forth an idea, but always as the group’s fundamental organizer, offering the barest of directions and at times, the barest of concessions to form.

“I look at every concert like a new painting. The canvas is blank when we start. As long as you have exciting players in the band, you can create an exciting concert every night. Nothing preconceived,” Evans tells me in an early September interview. “The musicians are the different colors that I can use to create something fresh and exciting to listen to. I orchestrate on the spot, giving the guys a space to release.”

Back in Santa Cruz, after a set loaded with Soulgrass and previous Evans originals, the band calls for another curveball: “The Weight”. The Band’s classic anthem is so often played and so often as a straight cover that the second Soulgrass finishes a very straight, very traditional reading of the first verse, you know things are going to get nice and weird, and whoa, do they. Every musician onstage gets a turn to corrupt “The Weight”. Each puts his unique spin on it, but it all sounds like it should – like Soulgrass should.

I ask about this process.

“My guests all ADD to the band, not take away. I’m very particular of who will be a guest with us,” Evans says. “They blend in and create their special sounds with us, and it all sounds like it’s supposed to be there. It’s a feeling-out process the first few gigs. With guests, the audience gets to hear some of their favorite players in a setting that may be quite new to them. So, in turn, it’s very exciting for everyone: us and the audience.”

Adds Evans: “I guess Miles instilled this thought process back in 1980 when I was just out of college, playing and hanging with him all the time.”

The modesty is impressive but the message is clear: it’s not just any old pie-eyed shredder who’d be able to hold his or her own in the court of Soulgrass.

Kimock and Pevar, for example, are fundamentally different guitar players, each of whom has logged miles and earned a fair measure of renown in the jamband, funk, fusion, rock and blues worlds and all points in between. The freedom granted in Evans’ Soulgrass is that such vibrant players get to be themselves and are encouraged to bend this music any which way they choose so long as they’re also yielding to it.

That’s the answer to the question of why Kimock, Pevar and Carbone can help Evans “be” Soulgrass, and another night it’s John Medeski who fills out the ensemble, or Warren Haynes, or Blues Traveler’s John Popper, or keyboard wizard Marco Benevento, or bluegrass great Sam Bush, or jazz trumpet legend Randy Brecker.

Evans, as both the lead artist and the provider of the canvas, is ever so welcoming into this magical little art studio of a band. But you’d better have come to paint.

Playing harder

It’s no big surprise that the Soulgrass approach has burnished Evans’ reputation and brought him into some interesting orbits – great musicians want to be pushed by other great musicians into new territory. No less a veteran than Butch Trucks, 44 years anchor of the Allman Brothers’ drum corps, compared Evans’ power to that of Allmans guitar tandem of Haynes and Derek Trucks, both of whom have also hosted Evans in their own bands.

“I have never played with any type of horn player that plays with as much power and passion as he does,” Butch told me in e-mail. “He simply is the only wind player I’ve ever seen that can keep up with us and actually make me play harder. I love playing with Bill.”

So that’s what it is: the push. The experience of Bill Evans – and that he’s created a band and concept that extends that experience — is what you’re left with after you’ve exhausted all attempts at coherent description. At “worst,” he’ll still jolt you to life. At best, he’s offering something transcendent – Soulgrass, indeed. The band’s typical closer – a Dion-led pumper aptly called “Feel” – seems to capture it, with everyone getting one more turn to light off fireworks in downtown Santa Cruz.

“All these ingredients make Soulgrass a very powerful unit that stays fresh every day,” Evans says. “I love it. I never get tired of playing with this band.”

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Chad Berndtson writes about music and technology for Gatehouse Media, Relix, Jambase, Glide, PopMatters and other publications. He lives in New York City. Drop him a line at cberndtson[at]gmail[dot]com.