Review: Bill Evans Soulgrass @ Blue Note

Saxophonist Bill Evans came up in the jazz world, but he’s a jazz musician like his friend Bela Fleck is a jazz musician: deeply virtuosic, but hardly tethered to doctrine or idiom or genre, and definitely willing to push the envelope on music that’s endlessly variable and warrants well-thought-out, but not overly cerebral, exploration.

Soulgrass, Evans’ seven-year-old bluegrass-jazz summit, is the ideal forum for something like this. The jazz-meets-bluegrass-with-plenty-of-stopovers concept isn’t new — the Flecktones are its best-known modern purveyor — but Evans’ effusiveness and his skill in picking co-conspirators make his version sound particularly adventurous. And yet, it also goes down pretty smooth without being neat and tidy; Evans himself is so exciting a player that even his freest stuff feels accessible.

The sardine-tight Blue Note, where Evans set up a week’s worth of Soulgrass gigs in mid-April, became a staging for material for his superb new album, Dragonfly. Joining him was an all-star cast: the great, understated Mitch Stein on guitar, a how-is-he-still-unknown banjoist, Ryan Cavanaugh, Josh Dion, a protean drummer but also a sublime singer — his pipes falling somewhere between Southern rock, gospel and buttery R&B — and Etienne Mbappe, a Cameroon-bred bass player and a wicked stylist on the low end, with an all-pro approach, but also a mischievous streak not unlike, say, Oteil Bubridge’s. (Evans, who’s sat in with the Allman Brothers on several occasions over the last two years, must dig that mischief.)

To the definite benefit — and occasional detriment — of the music, Evans took a more-the-merrier approach with these shows, adding A-list guest musicians to round out the core band. At the show I attended, the early set on the third of five nights, Evans had not only John Medeski manning organ and electric piano, but also trumpet legend Randy Brecker, who joined the ensemble after its first selection, and remained through the end of the set.

With such a rich mix of players, it was a challenge to preserve the ensemble vibe; Cavanaugh and Stein, in particular, would disappear into some songs as the marquee guests couldn’t help but command attention. Sometimes it felt like a full-band expression that opened up in different directions picked out by a soloist. Others, it was as spare as two players locked in with one another; Evans and Cavanaugh, in a dazzling showcase midway through the show, picked and blew out a version of Katie Lee that saw each bend a bit to the other’s will, the banjo tones elongating and the sax tones coming as machine-gun fire syncopation.

As on the album, Dion-sung choruses served as starting points and the songs would frequently spread into frothy jams, with Evans trusting his musicians to carve this territory up amongst themselves. Medeski, who can veer from elegant to wildly brainy and ostentatious without much warning, stayed a mostly mellow colorist until late in the show, when he peeled off a solo sequence so fierce during Cool Eddie that Mbappe picked up his progression and started to play off of it, throwing floor underneath. Brecker’s influence was subtler, injecting solos that touched fusion and bop and hot jazz and all sorts of stuff, but that never felt anything but exquisitely just right. Clearly, all of these musicians enjoy orbiting Evans and kicking it on his playground — it’s not unreasonable to think they’re all players who get easily bored and would try to run away with these songs as showboats if they didn’t respect him so.

For a too-short period, it was magic stuff. Evans and crew stuck mostly to Dragonfly tunes over about 75 minutes, and the funky jazz-rocker Tit for Tat, which Evans co-wrote with recent buddy Warren Haynes, and an expansive I Don’t Know About Love were the exploratory standouts. But they also tucked into older and more varied Evans material, as well, including that Cool Eddie, a tribute to Eddie Harris and a staple of Evans and Brecker’s Soulbop band, which had the blues-soul swagger of a Booker T. tune and pulled in everyone. The finale was a raw, gospel-rocking, Dion-led tune called Feel that opened up to solos as a country boogie.

Evans plays in New York and all over the U.S. quite a bit, but seems to spend at least as much time abroad, particularly Europe, where his audiences are ample. He’s mentioned adding more Soulgrass dates in the U.S. this year; these aren’t shows lovers of adventurous music would dare sleep on.

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