Review: Bill Evans’ Soulgrass @ Blue Note – The Finale

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Bill Evans’ Soulgrass @ The Blue Note – March 3

Words: Chad Berndtson
Photos: Vernon Webb

See Bill Evans’ mesmerizing Soulgrass group enough and you start to wonder just how it works – how it can work, what with so much that could make it feel overcrowded or unfocused or too much “too much.”

[All Photos by Vernon Webb]

There’s the intensity of the jamming, sure, and that’s more than enough to warrant repeat visits. But the bluegrass-meets-jazz-meets-all-kinds-of-other-stuff concept is heady enough, and with this assemblage of players — sax, drums/vocals, bass, electric guitar, banjo, and, for this run of shows, anyway, keyboards — the potential is always for these performances to become mere hodgepodge. “You solo there, then I solo, and in doing so we’ve said something profound about how woodwinds and strings can find common ground somewhere between jazz, bluegrass, country, rock, funk and R&B.”

A lesser group would approach the matter that way, and probably make for a fun, if patchworked-sounding concert. Not Soulgrass. Evans’ remarkable ensemble takes those idiom-crashing ideas two, sometimes three steps deeper, to the point where songs and jams begin innocently enough and then explode, or sprawl, or deviate, or reform, or do something to suggest there are lots of conversations between the instruments going on at all times – not just one instrument blasting away in a vacuum.

In other words, this is a band of listening-based interplay, and that mission seems to come directly from its namesake, who when he’s not torturing his sopranos and tenors is actively feeding off another player’s solo, while at the same time trying to spin up an idea with a player, while also adding colors, shading and other effects to heighten what’s going on in the groupthink. Evans’ triumph is that he’s offered a setting to have those conversations – Of course banjo! Of course rock drumming! Of course spaced out keyboard and melodica effects! – and then brought in conversationalists who have enough game and understanding of what he’s trying to do carry it off.

Sunday’s early show kicked off the final night of a six-night Blue Note run, and because it was also an off night for Evans pals the Allman Brothers Band, rumors churned that Warren Haynes or Derek Trucks might be stopping by. That they didn’t wasn’t exactly a hindrance – this was an opportunity to see the core Soulgrass group really strut its stuff without having to carve out space for extra players. Somehow there’s room to get just enough of banjo ace Ryan Cavanaugh, or guitar wizard Mitch Stein, or bassist Etienne Mbappe, or double-threat drummer/singer Josh Dion – not to mention Evans or special guest John Medeski – to get the full effect of Soulgrass, yet want tons more.

Soulgrass is a jammy, jammy band, in the best possible sense. In a 75-minute set they made it through five tunes: four from the eclectic Soulgrass output, and one of Medeski’s, a head-trip of a thing called Junkyard that began with Evans and Medeski goading each other on sax and melodica, making sounds like mutant insects having an argument, and then opened up for a groovy, serpentine group jam.

But that’s how they all went, from the woozy funk of Tit for Tat to any of the R&B- or country-inflected workouts sung by Dion. Each selection was its own little world: introduction, dialogue, fiery jamming, psychedelic jamming, rhythmic, funky jamming and a conclusion – or two, or three – that either circled back to the song’s original theme or lit off a few more firecrackers in search of keeping the intensity level high. This is a group that wants to paint – just break out the colors, open the canvas, and go.

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