Interview | Bill Evans Talks Soulgrass

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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.

JAMBASE: Talk about the core Soulgrass band. You’ve been playing with this crew for a while now – how has it grown? Are you now able to do things with guys like Josh and Ryan you couldn’t, say, two years ago?

[Photo by Susan Weiand]

BE: We are all sort of connected mentally on stage now. Josh has such a unique and musical style of playing the drums, and he is just as talented as a singer and composer. But then, he is not from this planet. Where he comes from in the galaxy, they can all do that.

Ryan has grown so much it is scary. He can play anything: jazz, bluegrass, rock. That’s rare for a banjo player. That instrument is so hard to play and he makes it seem really easy. It’s not. Poor guy had to give up a childhood to learn that thing.

Mitch Stein and Dave Anderson groove like a feather duster on a board of nails. No frills, baby, just kick-ass grooves, chops and creativity with a little mustard on top.

JAMBASE: Will you continue to record and play out with Soulgrass this year?

BE: I’m working on the new Soulgrass CD as we speak. I’m hoping to record it in late April or May to be the fourth CD in the Soulgrass. I’m only scratching the surface. There are a lot of players I want to play with, jam with, and have as guests with our Soulgrass world.

JAMBASE: What else are you working on right now?

BE: I’m touring June and July in Canada, Japan and Europe with the Mike Stern/Bill Evans band featuring Dennis Chambers. That is some kick ass instrumental over-the-top mind-bending stuff. Then more Soulgrass after that, for sure.

JAMBASE: You were down at Gov’t Mule’s Island Exodus. Obviously you’ve played a bunch with Warren and company – talk about that experience.

BE: What a treat. Beautiful beaches, food, great new friends – Mule fans are the best – and getting a chance to play with Warren and the band. What’s better than that? I really feel at home with Warren and the rest of the Mule family.

I recently signed with Hardhead Management, which is Warren’s management, so I’m really looking forward to that relationship growing. I love the Gov’t Mule band. Jorgen throws down on bass. Danny is one of the most creative keyboardists on the planet. Matt rocks like no other and Warren throws down like a samurai warrior every night.

JAMBASE: You just jammed with JJ Grey, too, up at the Cap. Did you know him before you two were in Jamaica?

BE: Me and JJ rode the same bus to school everyday. No, just kidding: I listened to his music for years, but only met and played with him for the first time in Jamaica with Warren and Co. What a soulful dude, and he has great stories, too. A class act. I’d love to have him sing something on the new CD – hint! Such a unique voice, I’m jealous.

JAMBASE:: A lot of musicians who you’ve jammed with, from Warren to Butch Trucks to Popper to the Umphrey’s guys, praise you for injecting yourself without being overpowering, which is a tricky nuance for most guests. What do you look for in a sit-in opportunity?

BE: I look for free food and beer. No, what do I look for when sitting in, seriously? I just want to enhance the situation and add something to it – like a strategic missile strike. I don’t want to change up what these great bands already have going on, I want to add another color and hopefully take it to a place that everyone wants to be at. Sitting in, you don’t have time to get warmed up. You have to play now and make it happen now. That’s where my Powerade mixed with a double espresso comes in. After that combo, it’s go time, baby!