Interview | Bill Evans Talks Soulgrass

Written By: Chad Berndtson

:: Interview - Bill Evans ::

New York City has the Allmans at the Beacon, Bowlive and plenty of other traditions at this time of year. But the sleeper jam-scene residency of the early spring is the one at the sardine-tight Blue Note: the return of Bill Evans Soulgrass.

Describing Soulgrass is a classic “dancing about architecture” challenge – they’re way better experienced, felt, absorbed than written about. They look like a jazz combo with a banjo, but when sax wizard Evans, drummer/singer Josh Dion, guitarist Mitch Stein, bassist Dave Anderson and banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh really get up to no good, genres and cross- genres go out the window and serious group improv takes hold, stitching together jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass, soul and R&B as if they never had any business being described as separate.

The excitement around what Evans has accomplished has helped him invite some of the best- known scene players to expand the Soulgrass collective as guests. This year’s Blue Note stand includes three nights and six shows (8 pm and 10:30 pm each night): February 27, February 28 and March 1. Eric Krasno, Neal Evans and Tim Carbone join Soulgrass tomorrow, with John Popper and John Medeski climbing aboard for the 28th. March 1 brings back Popper and adds Marco Benevento.

The wily Evans obliged us with an interview as he gets ready to pack the Blue Note yet again.

JAMBASE: Soulgrass at the Blue Note is a spring tradition now. Have you been surprised by the attention paid to these shows?

BILL EVANS: Surprised? No. If you put great musicians on a stage, eventually people have to take notice. You can only pretend you don’t see the big elephant in the room when it’s really there. Someone is going to say, “Whose elephant is that? Why is it in this room?” And then later on they say, “Far out! Why didn’t I think of that?”

I love putting musicians together who are not normally playing together. I’m inspired by that. I want to have a charity concert in the future, in New York, and have musicians from rock, jazz, jamband, bluegrass all on one stage making music. That would be fun. We can call it, “An Evening of Soulgrass featuring musicians from the planet Earth.”

JAMBASE: How do you select guests for Soulgrass? You wouldn’t ask just anyone to do it.

BE: Criteria to play with us: you have to play your ass off and be open-minded and not take yourself too seriously. We’re all only one step away from working in the circus. I know plenty of clowns, contortionists and lion tamers pretending to be world-class musicians. They’re all just really good at concealing their day job.

JAMBASE: Talk a little bit about what this year’s guests bring to the table.

BE: Sure. Eric is supposed to bring the dessert, Neal the main course...sorry! Everyone is such an individual. Combined they all have soul, vibe, chops, huge ears and a severe case of wanting to play great music. John Medeski, for example, is a fan of all kinds of music and really brings a certain kind of joy to the stage whenever he plays with us. I’m humbled by all the talent these guys possess.

JAMBASE: How much are you interested in bringing guests into your material -- Soulgrass and Bill Evans material -- versus being a bit more deferential and playing their songs?

BE: Everyone at a certain level writes their own music. It’s fresh for us to play their music and fresh for them to play it with us, and vice versa. It also gives fans a chance to hear songs they might be familiar with played differently. Everyone interprets music differently. What’s humorous to some is serious to others. And I don’t care if it’s funk, soul, rock, folk or the Flintstones.

Our music is different every set. When we solo, it’s never the same, ever. That’s a good thing. Never boring. That’s why we studied jazz for so many years – so that we could speak the language on the highest level.

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